Keeva on Life and Practice

Take off the Straitjacket

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A couple of years ago I served as a panelist at a New York State Bar Association program on quality of life for lawyers. There must have been 250 people in the packed room.

Early on in the program, a few of the older lawyers on the panel acknowledged their sense that things had only gotten worse in terms of quality of life, and that they worried for younger generations.

One panelist a senior member of the bar introduced himself and then shared an anecdote about a chance meet­ing he’d recently had with a former partner on a Manhat­tan street corner.

Shortly after the two of them exchanged pleasantries, the lawyer telling the story asked his old colleague how his son was making his way in life. (He had warm memories of the young man.)

“It’s not so good,” the former partner answered, with a sneer. “He’s decided to go into law.” After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he added, “I knew I should have strangled him in the cradle.”

The room suddenly went silent; the expression on the panelist’s face left no possibility that he was joking.

Self-Image Limitations

I was shaken, to be sure, and it wasn’t long before I began recalling times when similarly dark musings had been offered in my presence, although this one was particularly upsetting.

I’ve thought about them frequently since then, hoping to mine their meaning. One thing that occurs to me is that, more than ever, lawyers today seem to feel hemmed in by a conformity of thought, behavior and image that is all too prevalent in the current legal culture. There should be many, many ways to see oneself as a lawyer, but somehow the number of possible professional identities in the legal profession seems to have withered.

Is it just the time famine, fed by the pressure of billable- hour quotas, that accounts for the stifling airlessness that chokes off a sense of alternatives? Is that why there is no room for whimsy, or at least experimentation with new approaches to work?

Here’s what I think: Lawyers are increasingly running out of ways to be as lawyers. They feel straitjacketed and can’t find a way to bring who they really are into their work. For one thing, there is precious little sup­port and encouragement for doing so.

A recently published book, it seems to me, offers some hope in this regard but only if you let it sink in. When David Hall writes about the legal profession, his observations seem clearly to come from a deeper place than most discussions and commentary on the profession. The former dean of Northeastern University Law School in Bos­ton, Hall is still a professor there.

What exactly is he after? It’s in the title: The Spiritual Revitalization of the Legal Profession. The spiritual and the sacred? Well, yes.

A Healing Profession

Hall is very aware that some people strong­ly feel there is no place for spiritual and sacred con­cerns in the law. But he believes that the law is, in fact, a sacred profession and sees no rea­son why it should not be included among the other great healing professions medicine and the clergy.

(Hall does make it clear in his book that spirituality needn’t have anything to do with religion, per se.)

“We are the bearers of a light that can lead individuals out of darkness and loneliness,” Hall writes, “lead nations out of the caves of injustice and oppression and into the sunlight of justice and peace. We do this not just with our finely honed intellectual skills; we do it with our compassion and tears … and with unconditional love for those who have been rejected and despised.

“We must bring all of who we are to the practice of this sacred craft,” he writes. Here, I believe Hall is saying that to the extent you have a personal sense of sacredness, you have an opportunity and perhaps a duty to bring it to your law practice.

People who have met David Hall or heard him speak are inevitably impressed by his depth and gentle dignity. And his language, laced with metaphors from the human and the natural worlds, speaks to a wider range of experience.

Hall’s metaphors come overwhelmingly from the natural world, from which he takes great comfort. “The river in the context of this book,” he writes, “symbolizes the soul and spirit of the legal profession. It represents our connection to each other and to the divine.” Hall describes a legal world in which love, humility, forgiveness, service, faith and integrity matter, in a very big way. He sees no reason that law shouldn’t be practiced as a healing profession, rather than to coin a term a hurting profession, an image of law practice held by both lawyers and nonlawyers.

Rather than fostering “order, balance and a sacred equi­librium within individuals and society,” Hall notes, the legal system ends up contributing to “social ills among those who were its primary guardians.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

We can at least try to build a profession in which no one has cause ever again to think or express a wish like the one I heard that day in New York City.

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.

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