Being in quarantine is difficult for everyone, but it’s particularly difficult when you are a family lawyer doing it alone. You have nobody to decompress with or hug after long hours of working on stressful cases on a computer. If you decide to go off of social media because of the tone of the rhetoric there, and you don’t have cable tv, there is even more isolation. Days are spent triaging highly anxious family law clients and nights are spent asking yourself weighty questions.
You read an article that says you will discover who your friends really are by the ones who reach out to say “are you ok?” and realize that while you think you have many friendships, if that is the criteria, only maybe one or two of those friendships are very deep. You rarely or don’t ever hear from “friends” and maybe only one asks if you are ok. It seems like you are the one checking in on people but other than your children nobody is checking in on you.
Most of the people that are calling you want something. Your legal expertise, your help in filing for unemployment, your take on how they can survive the pandemic, your interpretation of a custody order in light of social distancing. All the people you’ve helped, guided, loved on and taken care of over the years are preoccupied. They assume you are strong and must be ok. Some who you reach out to texting “I hope you are safe and doing well” don’t even take time to respond. You remember what you’ve done to help those people over the years and wonder what it is that made them so detached they couldn’t even take a quick moment to send back a thumbs-up emoticon.
At night with a dog sleeping at your feet and the “pink moon” glaring through the window you start asking yourself big questions.
What has my life been about up until now?
If I catch the virus and die, what is my legacy? (After all, at age 62 I am in the “endangered species” category.)
Who and what did I let drive my life in ways that were not, in retrospect, beneficial and may have even de-railed me?
What did I miss along the way?
IF I live through this how will I show up differently post-pandemic?
I started seeing a terrific new therapist before the virus hit, because I was so miserable in the practice of law. He helped me see that I’d been suffering for many, many years and for the first time (because he was a former attorney himself) someone “got” the suffering I’d been feeling for years. We began to dissect it with the intention of figuring out what I would do with my “last act” of life and how, and if, the law would a part of it.
But then the pandemic hit.
Suddenly I am faced with having this weighty reflection front and center as I navigate 10 hour days of client matters every day while trying to pay attention to what is going on with the virus, whether I have to Clorox my groceries, and whether my 84 year old mother and 60 year old brother with advanced MS are safe in their homes. What was previously a stressful job now has become even more mentally taxing. But what I know from previous life devastation is I have to somehow navigate staying present and awake for all there is to learn.
As I ponder the “suffering in the law” question amidst all of this, I’ve come to a clear realization. It isn’t the clients, even the most demanding ones, who cause the suffering. They are actually the bright spot. It’s the other lawyers. It’s the value system of the practice of law. It’s the idea that more money is made by lawyers the more parties are fighting and litigating. It’s that it’s all about winning, including thinking it’s a big victory to take a child away from a parent or to get a vocational expert to say a lifetime stay at home parent should all of a sudden be making $50,000 and therefore minimizing the amount the other parent has to pay to support their children. It’s mentally stressful hearing sad stories in a system of deadlines and rules of engagement that make people’s life traumas the source of ego gratifying wins and competitive gamesmanship. The idea of family justice seems so bizarre and illogical.
I’ve loved my clients and loved on them for over 35 years. I’ve sat with them for hours hearing their hearts, encouraging them to find their highest selves, helping them find new footing in the new normal of their lives during and after legal interventions. I’ve had many profound experiences sitting side by side with people who were bleeding emotionally and watching their lives fall apart. As I was helping them, my clients were my own spiritual guides as I found new pieces of myself in them, and new understanding of suffering and transformation. I’ve sometimes floated home from the office whispering to myself about what a privilege and honor it is to do such important work for my clients.
But back to the suffering as a lawyer. After confiding to mentors and confidantes I was encouraged by one mentor about 7 years ago to write about it, and to start sharing the message of change in my profession. This is where my path might have gotten off course (but as is always the case, that diversion brought me back home). I proceeded to spend years writing and imploring lawyers to reclaim the beauty of our profession as a healing profession. I wrote “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014. I’ve been on the speaking circuit explaining to lawyers that they needed to do things differently. I’ve spoken with passion and a sense of urgency.
Most who have heard me figuratively patted me on the head and said, “Good little Kimmy.” They’ve dismissed my message and just keep doing things the same way. Why would they change? It’s a good gig, even if studies show a large number of lawyers feel their line of work has adversely impacted their mental health. Plus, any sense of changing to be more collaborative, loving, compassionate and kind is largely viewed as a sense of weakness, frailty, not being a “real” lawyer. And it’s no secret you end up billing fewer hours for cooperation than for combat.
I’ve given speeches at the law schools imploring faculty to offer coursework on topics like collaboration and emotional intelligence and to place emphasis on being a “whole person” above emphasis on things like class rank. That message has gone over with a thud. Those subjects aren’t on the bar exam after all and bar passage rate is one of the components of measurement by US News and World Reports. Yes, legal education hasn’t changed in decades and now it is held hostage by a magazine that nobody reads. So lawyers are continually turned out in the same competitive paradigm that is part of the dysfunction of the profession. Some studies show that incoming law students change their whole world view. When they enter law school most do so to “help people.” During the three years, law students change their goals to wanting to be the exemplar student, to complete law school with a high class ranking to ensure a shoe-in at a lucrative job in “Big Law” and to make a name for themselves.
At night with shutters open in the light of the beautiful pink moon, laying in my bed during the quarantine, I put my hands over my heart and comfort my wounded self. What in the world were you thinking when you took on this crusade? What in the world made you think that you could be the champion of change? And what now?
Trying to mentor young lawyers to practice in a new way, by approaching and recruiting those who I thought could share the vision, only added more suffering. I realize that while I thought they shared my dream and mission, for most of them, that wasn’t it at all. It was instead that my dream and passion for the cause was contagious to them. I got them excited because I was so excited. They weren’t really excited on their own. When the money starts coming the vision gets lost because the old way is a good gig. Frustration, heartache, kicking myself for the time invested, the giving, giving, giving of myself to those I thought would help multiply the change. Suffering from those fractured relationships in the law that hurt worse than other personal and family heartaches.
Also, in that pink moon a ray of light through the clouds illuminated another pandemic induced realization. In my crusade I’d lost something. The connection with my clients. Yes, it’s always there to a degree but the “mission” became paramount to the delicacy of the client’s hearts. My own mind and heart have been split in two these past years. I’m still “feeling with” the clients but doing so while a big part of my heart has been dedicated to my agenda of legal reform. The “movement” has permeated a big part of my body, mind and spirit that only have finite resources. The personal satisfaction of the legal reform mission is much less gratifying than the profound joy the work with the clients in the trenches has given me. If anything, “the mission” has fed my ego and made me more driven to be “seen and heard” and stolen a big chunk of my humility, stillness and center. And then last night, a bold ray of moonlight pierced through the clouds with such brightness it was startling, and a bible verse came to the forefront. “Feed my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep” is what Jesus said to the disciples when they were trying to convince him how much they loved him, and he was telling them how to prove it. (John 21:15-17) That verse, at that moment, answered one of my big questions.
How will I show up in the world post pandemic?
Before the onset, I had been focused on a legacy of being an instrument of change in the legal profession. While I know I have been making a difference in the lives of my clients, I’ve thought that individual impact was “too small” of a mission. I remember a friend who had a business with an important message, and she shared that she’d been convinced she would “reach millions.” Somehow that went into my subconscious and I thought of all the good that could be done in the world by lawyers, sitting with the most vulnerable in our society, if my message of compassion in the law would reach millions. A few sheep surely weren’t the same caliber of importance.
Laying alone in the middle of a pandemic brings clarity about how inconsequential you are in the scheme of things at the end of the day. And yet there it was; “Feed my sheep.”
I go to the dog park this morning shortly after sunrise like I do every pandemic day. As usual, nobody is there that early but my dog and me, and this morning I’m thinking about “feed my sheep” and asking for more clarity of what it means.
As I pull into the parking lot, NPR is interviewing Andrea Bocelli who will sing day after tomorrow at a cathedral in Milan, where there will be no audience. He says that having no audience is beautiful because to him it is not a concert, it is a prayer. The interviewer asks his wife if it will seem odd that he won’t be in front of a packed house and she says no. She tells of how at times, on Sundays, he does church with a few people who are very sick or dying. There may be only five people bedridden and Andrea Bocelli sings just for them. She tells that it is beautiful because they all view his singing as a prayer offering for the healing of the few people that are there.
I start to sob as he proceeds to sing Ave Maria, alone in my car in full pandemic loneliness as his music feeds me, and my dog licks the tears as they come down my cheeks.
I’ve realized that each intervention with each client I meet makes a monumental impact. It’s not just me impacting them, but them impacting me. Meeting someone on the path of suffering and helping them navigate that part of their journey, is the highest calling I have on my life.
There are politicians and special interest groups clamoring for healthcare reform, change in our government, big systemic changes like I was preaching. And those things are worthy, and necessary. Yet there is also a nurse sitting with one person dying of the virus who can’t be near family and would be alone without that one nurse. That moment is a crucial transformative moment for both of them. Calling someone in quarantine to check on them when they are suffering is a huge transformative moment for both people. Sending a thumbs up emoticon during a pandemic to someone who is reaching out to ask how you are, can trigger a transformative reconciliation.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has dropped bombs on the law. Big Law is disintegrating before our eyes, with associates and staff being downsized all across the country. Lawyers who are client centric are surviving (and dare I say, thriving) during the transition and other firms of billing machines are panicking. Law schools have had to scramble to move to online instruction and now discussion of pass/fail grading, doing away with bar exams and equipping lawyers to be more client centric are part of the zoom discussion.
What will be left standing?
Of course, there is a part of me that wants to roll out my publications and say, “I told you so” and reinvigorate the crusade. This time in my mind’s eye I’m carrying a flag out front of the pack leading through the rubble of singed yellow legal pads on the ground to higher ground. But what I know now, is if I do that, I will be lost again. And my current round of suffering will be for naught. You see, the practice of law has been dysfunctional for years and apparently, I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. The change is taking care of itself through the path of COVID 19, which lawyers would call force majeure or “act of God.” It’s not just the law that will change dramatically after this extraordinary phase of life. It’s most every business, system, government.
But what about us as individuals? Will we change? And how will we show up post-pandemic?
For me, never again will I minimize a small word of encouragement, a hug with a suffering person, sharing the heart stories and sitting beside (or across the screen from) a client while we navigate their life through change. It may be a change caused by a legal intervention or, as happened this week, a pandemic that makes them realize they want to learn skills to better communicate with their co-parent. Either way, I’ll be paying rapt attention to what is happening with the people I will serve.
I will go forward and embrace my new role, which is the role that I’ve had all along but took for granted. But first, I’ll be watching the Andrea Bocelli Easter concert live streamed. And I’ll cry tears that contain many profound emotions while he sings as I sit alone in quarantine on Easter Sunday. Through his concert that’s really a prayer, I’ll proclaim once and for all that I am enough, if I simply choose to be the change I want to see in the law.