The Many Faceted Lawyers Among Us

What do the following people have in common:  a massage therapist, a librettist, a Mary Kay saleswoman, a White House photo editor, an opera singer, a martial artist, a published author, an accomplished percussionist and drummer, a minister and a poet?  The answer is that they all have had successful law practices here in the Twin Cities, including one who has successfully argued a matter before the United Sates Supreme Court.  Many continue to practice law today.

I’ve had the good fortune to be in conversation with these many-faceted lawyers, exploring how their interests have been important to them and fueled their self-confidence and vitality.  I’d like to share what I’ve learned, with the hope you might benefit from their experience.

The versatility of a law degree.  The reasons to pursue law are many and varied.  Yet, many of us became lawyers with the expectation that our law degrees would enable us to do many and varied things over the course of our careers.  We could practice law, teach law, go into politics, go into business or otherwise be nimble and well-educated.  For sure, we wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into a confined identity or role.

The peril of specialization.  For most of my career I practiced environmental law, first as a member of the Office of the Attorney General in two states.  Later, I continued to practice environmental law as a partner in two law firms.  Over the years, I became more and more specialized in my practice area.  Eventually, I became expert in multi-party Superfund litigation.  Being so specialized seemed safe to me until legislative reforms eliminated much of the litigation over who would pay for environmental cleanups.  A once robust area of practice was no longer robust.

With my practice diminished, I needed to retool.  A career coach helped me do just that.  I came to realize that I had so burrowed-into my area of specialization that I had lost perspective on how I might use my law degree and I couldn’t see other choices that I might make in the middle years of my life.  I needed another pair of eyes on the road ahead and she provided me with that perspective.

I became curious about how other lawyers were living their lives.  What might I learn from them and how might I live differently?  How did they cultivate a sense of vitality and joy in their lives?  How were some satisfied to remain in the profession while others made other choices?  That inquiry led me to reflect on the lawyers mentioned in the opening lines of this article and to learn from their experiences.  What might we learn from them?  What tips might they give us?

In their collective experience, there are at least three nuggets:

  1. Cultivate aliveness. Many lawyers believe that building a practice is simply a matter of being a subject matter expert.  “The more I know, the more clients I will have and the more respected I will be.”  In this view, the prize is what you know, not who you are.  Even if their schedules permitted them to spend some time on personal interests and personal development, they see no ROI (return on investment) in doing so.

In contrast, some lawyers cultivate aliveness.  Personal development is important to them.  They are adult learners, keenly aware of who and what delights and sustains them.  They are not captives of their identity as lawyers and they refuse to be pigeon-holed.  They are creative (even daring) and think outside the box.  Happily, their enthusiasm for life attracts people to them, including those seeking legal advice.

  1. Take risks and learn from your mistakes. Lawyers are trained to be risk-adverse.  The documents we draft are intended to avoid every foreseeable risk.  Sometimes we assure our clients that following our advice will keep them safe.  While avoiding risk for the benefit of the client is necessary and laudable, seeking to avoid all risk is impossible.  It’s also impossible to live a mistake-free life.  Your life is likely evidence of that.  And if you seek to hide your mistakes, you are likely to make matters worse, never learning from the mistakes you’ve made.

In contrast, some lawyers balance risk with benefit, especially for themselves.  They aren’t confined by convention, although they recognize that there can be wisdom in convention.  They are not ruled by the expectation of others.  They have a sense of autonomy.  They make choices and accept the consequences of the choices they make.

For example, who says a lawyer cannot be a massage therapist?  How might being a massage therapist benefit a lawyer in his or her law practice?  When I asked that question, the lawyer replied that being a massage therapist taught him to be present, earn trust and be with people who are much different that he is.  He learned to read people and be at ease with them.  In the meanwhile, his law practice has flourished.  Simply put, he is at ease in his own skin and at ease with others.

As a further example, how might being a drummer be a benefit?  As a performer and music educator, this lawyer reports that he has learned to listen, collaborate, create, interpret, guide, lead and execute.  I contend that those qualities are relevant and necessary for a vibrant life, including a life lived as a lawyer.

  1. Be yourself. Some lawyers assume a certain persona as a lawyer.  Some judges suffer from the Black Robe disease.  These lawyers and judges are often self-important and are defined by their status.  They know themselves by their title, their income, who they are seen with, what clothes they wear, what vehicle they drive or whether people stand when they enter a court room.  When life inevitably disrupts all of that, they are prone to question their identity, their worth and their place in the world.

In contrast, some lawyers do the unexpected and pursue their interests even though those interests may be atypical of what a lawyer commonly does.  The expectations of others do not inhibit them, nor curtail the choices they make as they live their lives.  Rather, they seek to know themselves and to give expression to what attracts and interests them.  You’re apt to spot them in many and varied places, including music, sports and athletic venues.

From where I stand, there is a benefit to look around and see how others, including the lawyers you know, live their lives.  There is much to learn from them and the choices they make.  Some have intentionally become multi-faceted people and they tend to live vibrant lives.  In my experience, being multi-faceted and vibrant go hand in hand.  Typically, too, these lawyers often have a successful practice of law.  The lives of these lawyers illustrate that our profession provides ample wiggle-room for self-expression.  Indeed, lawyers can do many and varied things over the course of their careers.  What’s needed are lawyers who cultivate aliveness, are willing to take risks, and own and learn from their mistakes.  Thankfully, there are many such lawyers.  They contribute mightily to the profession and the clients they serve.