Keeva on Life and Practice

The Parent of All Virtues

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But there is one way of relating to the world that, it seems to me, comes closer than any other to characterizing truly satisfied practitioners. It’s a sense of gratitude–the virtue Cicero referred to as the parent of all virtues.

I think it makes a lot of sense. A good part of the well-documented malaise in the legal profession would probably be alleviated if practitioners felt more connected –to their clients, to a deeper sense of meaning in their work, to each other and to the world around them. Hourly billing and unending demands only make it that much harder to sustain family connections as well.

When we see the world through the lens of gratitude, hassles get easier to bear, and stress recedes. And that’s not an idle claim. Research supports it.

In a study by psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, three groups of subjects were asked to keep specific types of journals over time. One group was told simply to record daily events. One recorded only annoyances. And those in the third group made lists of things for which they were grateful.

Members of the last group reported more optimism, enthusiasm and alertness, as well as less depression and stress. They were also more likely to help others.

A number of lawyers I know are quite clear about the importance of gratitude in their lives. One, a trial lawyer, tells me he can’t imagine a morning without his regular gratitude ritual, which he does in the shower. He brings to mind whatever evokes thankfulness, but always begins with the hot water pouring down on him, something he came to appreciate in a new way on a trip to Africa, where hot water was, in most cases, an unimaginable gift.

Gratitude is an attitude that grows over time and reveals a great deal about who we are as professionals and human beings and what matters most to us. And it’s not always what we might expect. Sure, you love your spouse, your kids and your closest friends and so on, but allowing the object of your gratitude to simply come to mind is likely to bring some surprises.

It has for me. I’ve come to realize, for example, that I’m grateful for the house I live in–but in a deeper way than I had realized before I tried really focusing on the feeling of gratitude. Once I did, I realized that I feel embraced not only by the structure itself, but also by the latticework of feelings and memories it evokes. I’ve come to see our Chicago-style bungalow as an ideal venue for the comedies and dramas that continue to animate my family’s life together.

And not only that. There are the particular textures and aromas; there’s the olive-colored overstuffed chair in the living room, where my gratitude for the feeling of such encompassing comfort only gives rise to other pleasant feelings and the opportunity to share them with family and friends.

So here’s my suggestion. Let’s say you’re in the office, feeling harried and anxious. You’ve got seven calls to return, and the phone is ringing again. What do you do? Count your blessings. You’ll feel more present, more balanced, more aware.

Don’t Go Looking

What’s important to remember is that it’s not about searching for something to be grateful for. It’s about finding what you already are grateful for. The distinction is crucial because you can’t make yourself feel thankful; you can only shine the light of awareness on what is already there, albeit heretofore neglected. How is that done? By taking a few quiet minutes to ask yourself what makes you feel grateful.

So what are these contented lawyers–the ones I mentioned at the top of this page–grateful for? Lots of things: their work, their nimble minds and their clients. The lifestyles their law practices make possible. And for some, the opportunities work provides for personal growth, even in the face of all that law practice can throw at them.

About a year ago, my friend Arnie Herz and I put on a continuing legal education program in Providence, R.I. It was late in the day, and the general tenor of the gathering was quite negative, even surly. When we sought comment from the audience, all anyone offered were stories about how miserable the practice had become. Things only got worse from there, until Arnie made a request. “I would like you all to think about one thing in the last month for which you feel grateful, one situation where you were happy about what you did.”

The room went quiet. Then, after a while, a middle-aged gentleman raised his hand. Arnie called on him, whereupon he described his recent opportunity to help a woman who had been in a bind, and how he did so in such a way as to put her mind at ease. He beamed as he described the experience. Acknowledging that there wasn’t much money in the kind of work he had done, he said he still would love to do it all the time.

“I felt so grateful to be able to help the way I did,” he said.

I had never seen the mood in a room shift so fast.

From crankiness to gratitude in no time flat.

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

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