Category Archives: Integrity

Our Lawyer Legacy, What Gets In The Way?

“ All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure-these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”- Steve Jobs

It’s a long day as I take my brother to cancer treatment. I sit with him as he surrenders to chemotherapy dripping into his veins, hoping that he’ll be cured.

Across town in hospice, a fellow lawyer is saying goodbye. He’s practiced law for over 40 years.

Not surprisingly, I begin to reflect on my own mortality and significance. Does my life really matter? Am I doing what I was meant to do? What will I be remembered for?

In Living Forward  the authors define legacy as “the spiritual, intellectual, relational, vocational and social capital we pass on.” As a lawyer, what gets in the way of leaving a lasting legacy ?

  1. Ego. Much of our identity is tied up in our label as “lawyer.” We joke about the reputation of lawyers but deep down we feel our title brings prestige and worthiness. My dad used to say, “People say they hate lawyers but they usually love their own lawyer.”

When we tie up our entire identity in the work we do, it limits our impact and influence in other areas of our lives. Can we let down from the public lawyer persona to be authentic? Do we keep aspects of ourselves “on the down low” because we worry if people really knew us it could be bad for business?

Question: Are you doing things that look good on paper, on the bottom line or at the firm, but that are draining you emotionally? Is there something that your heart yearns to do, but your are too afraid to undertake?

  1. Scarcity Mentality. Lawyers live in the constant shadow of the billable hour. From the moment you hit the door in the morning every minute literally counts. Time spent outside your billable events leaves more time to make up in the office. When we plan vacation we frontload hours so we aren’t so far behind when we get back, and field emails on vacation before our family awakens to go to the beach. A part of us is never far away from a timesheet.

We may believe if we don’t take every client that comes our way now, cases might not come tomorrow. We take cases without discernment and end up doing unpaid work as a result of retainers running out or a judge who won’t let us withdraw. Then we become self deprecating and frustrated for having taken the case in the first place.

Question: Do you leave your dreams at the doorstep because you feel it’s about survival instead of destiny?

  1. Constant immersion in toxicity. Every day we deal with clients with grave wounds, both physical and emotional. We handle the circumstances around life’s most devastating events. We are expected to “rescue” our clients from disasters they have often created themselves, so we think about these negative fact patterns over and over even on our supposed “off” time.

This constant immersion into the darkness of life leaves us little time to dream, reflect or connect with our interior life. A life’s desire can be lost in the fog, recast in our mind as nothing more than a whim, or tucked away as “too risky.” The failure to unplug for even short periods from the office, returning email or calls and churning cases in our heads means we are never fully present for our loved ones and the beauty of life.

Question: When is the last time you unplugged, and spent time totally away from work, for even a short period time? Are you exercising self care?

  1. Personal and financial insecurity. When we have been successful lawyers we risk prestige and prosperity by branching out. What will everyone think? How can we give up the golden handcuffs? A lawyer friend chucked his law practice and opened a gourmet spice store in a trendy part of my hometown. Lawyers flocked to his store because it was extraordinary, but also to study him as an example of uncommon courage and authenticity. Sadly, the lawyer died unexpectedly at age 46, only a short time after the store had opened.

Lawyers are often the caretakers of less productive friends or family members, sometimes even supporting others who have not made good choices with their lives or finances. They look to us as “having it all” and don’t hesitate to ask for handouts or help.

Question: What would it take to set boundaries with your money? Are the things that you acquire from wealth blocking you from taking risks to fulfill your heart’s desire? Are there people you are enabling by “helping” financially?

  1. Lack of transition planning. In my first law firm job over thirty years ago the partners took me by the macabre office of the named senior partner pointing to a dusty wooden desk telling me that is where he had dropped dead. Was that supposed to inspire me?

New lawyers claim the older lawyers aren’t moving over to make room. I recently suggested that a young lawyer ask an older lawyer to coffee, to get hints on how that lawyer had built the type of practice the young lawyer aspired to create. The older lawyer did not offer any advice and the impression was that the older lawyer was “hoarding” the work for himself.

It can be a blow to our ego when clients we introduce to younger lawyers decide to transition their work to that younger lawyer excluding us. Thoughtful transition and passing the baton can play in to insecurities and make us question our relevance.

Question: Are you sharing your wisdom and experience with younger lawyers? Are you encouraging a younger lawyer who is struggling?

As lawyers we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions at all stages of the practice, not just as we move into the final chapters of our professional careers.

Are you on target for your legacy?

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I love to coach lawyers! If you are interested in hiring me as a coach contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

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Speaking the Truth, in Love

origWhoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor rather than one who has a flattering tongue.-Proverbs 28:23

As an attorney, my days are filled with difficult conversations. I may deliver painful news to people involving their legal matter, or speak firmly with another lawyer as I advocate for my client. Recently, I had  to have difficult conversations with three different people who had  let me down or hurt me.

The approach I try to take  in all these circumstances is to “speak the truth in love.” That  means speaking directly but with a clear motive of trying to help the person receiving the message to understand something,  and not to punish, condemn or play victim.

Failure to initiate difficult conversations leaves us feeling disappointed or resentful and keeps us from being authentic and emotionally healthy. Avoiding these conversations may instead result in passive aggressive behavior or whispering our hurts to friends leading to gossip, triangulation of relationships, and fuel for our hurt.

Here’s what I’ve learned about initiating difficult conversations:

  1. Operate from a clear head not an emotional tsunami. Emotions are a gift, but letting them drive the moment leads to disaster. Initiate tough conversations when you are well rested, calm and emotionally even. This usually requires a reasonable “pause” between whatever has occurred and the time you choose to discuss it.
  1. State what went wrong with clarity. Using “I” statements can be helpful: “I was hurt when you weren’t there for me when I needed you,” or “I got overwhelmed when I had to step in after you didn’t follow through on your commitment.” Maybe even, “I have received complaints from clients/coworkers/teammates about your work.” If your communication begins with an email, don’t turn it into a long dissertation of drama. Use succinct bullet points and keep the tone businesslike. Having an in-person discussion is best.
  1. Know your goal. Be clear on what you need to remedy the situation. You may introduce the solution by saying “Here’s what I’ d like to see happen moving forward.” Another solution might be to offer to work together to remedy the problem, troubleshoot issues or even set a time to talk in more detail.  In most instances the goal will also be to preserve or  strengthen the relationship.
  1. Stay courageous in speaking your truth despite the response you get. If the person becomes argumentative, doesn’t listen or tries to turn the conversation back on you, stay firmly in your truth. Don’t cower under, say “never mind” or otherwise retreat until the issue is fully “aired out.” Your heart may be pounding but it’s critical to stay in the discussion in a healthy way.
  1. Keep calm. People aren’t used to facing conflict square in the eye. They are more familiar with passive aggressive approaches, or cryptic accusations on Facebook. It’s easy to criticize behind a keyboard. Talking on the phone or in person can trigger anything from fidgeting to wild histrionics.  Stay calm and focused while delivering your comments with dignity and respect.

Here’s what I recommend if someone “speaks the truth in love” to you:

  1. Listen closely. A tough conversation might come out of the blue at an unexpected time. If it does, tune in as quickly as you can to be able to hear what is being said. That may be difficult to do if you feel a strong emotional reaction at the outset of the conversation.

2.  Validate feelings before you respond. “It sounds like you are  really disappointed, I  understand how you might feel that way,” or a similar statement, lets the initiator know that you “get it.” Their feelings are valid for them. Whether their position is correct is another story. Pivoting into defensiveness or attack, or telling them they should not feel the way they feel, gets you nowhere and diminishes your credibility.

  1. Don’t shut down, become angry or defensive. Because most of us have not been exposed to healthy direct conversations, we can tend to think it’s a “fight” leading us to get into “attack” mode.  The minute you take the content personally, you have lost the opportunity for growth and clarity. Your personal hurts can be triggered, creating insight for you on unhealed wounds that could use further work later. By focusing on the problem and not the people you will avoid a poor response.
  1. Let the initiator know you understand, and only then, explain your perspective. Giving your side of things out of the gate minimizes your effectiveness. State the problem as you have heard it before you begin to describe things from your point of view. Once it’s your turn, breathe throughout your explanation and speak as slowly as possible so that you can be clearly understood.
  1. Apologies are magical if they are sincere. An apology can be critical in many circumstances. You may feel you did nothing wrong, but if your action or inaction let someone down even acknowledgement of that fact is powerful. “I am so sorry my actions upset you; our friendship is important to me,” or “I apologize for misunderstanding the work assignment; I didn’t mean to let down the team.”
  1. Investigate how to move forward. Asking how to repair a situation is perhaps the most critical reaction to a difficult conversation.  The simple question, “How can I make it right?” can open the door to great resolutions and healing. Only one of the three people  took this critical step in my situations.

Speaking the truth in love can be challenging, but it  provides growth for those who aspire to live with authenticity and courage.

The Poetry of Practice- Guest Blog

John Hardy is a recent graduate of Drake University Law School, and he just finished taking the Iowa Bar Examination.  He is joining Stamatelos & Tollakson once admitted to the bar. This is his first blog, and we are honored to have a lawyer of his caliber in our firm. Welcome John!

 

JEH Portrait
A lawyer is a poet. Language is the medium of the law, and word choice matters. It matters when legislators draft the law, it matters in front of a factfinder, and it matters when a lawyer is counseling a client. Legal writing has a tradition and history, just like poetry, with technical formal requirements and stylistic conventions. A good attorney, like a good poet, is a master of the language and knows what to say and what not to say. But linguistics are only part of the job. As with poetry, being an excellent attorney also requires a deep understanding of the human condition. A good lawyer has a focused mind and an open heart, and when the two work in tandem, the practice can be a work of art.

The Human Element

The human element is the intangible needs of the parties to a legal matter and other people who are affected by it. For the most part, clients call on a lawyer when their lives are in crisis, sometimes they may even be at their rock-bottom. In order to truly serve their clients, lawyers must recognize the emotional and relational needs of their client, which means they must look beyond the facts and the law. Clients may be unable to wholly engage in the process or articulate their ultimate goals until they believe that their lawyer has invested the time and attention required to know who they are, what they’re dealing with, and, sometimes, how they are feeling. The best lawyers know that some fights are not worth fighting, even if they are winnable. A client may prefer to move on with their life and save their money.

Nuts and Bolts

It goes without saying that a successful attorney will cross every “t.” If a statute of limitations runs or the attorney fails to preserve an error, it will be of little solace that the attorney is a good listener. The primary function of the attorney is often to serve as the voice of the client within the system. In this role, attorneys’ primary function is to know the law and play by the rules on behalf of their clients. When people need a professional shoulder to cry on, they hire a therapist, not a lawyer. Of course, the lawyer may end up wearing both hats, but there is no substitute for diligent attention to the legal details. If the lawyer is an architect, designing solutions for the client, the legal nuts and bolts are the bedrock and foundation. Empathy is the interior design. If the house collapses, instantly the color scheme does not matter. Solid legal work sets the table for the client to thrive in the future.

The Poetry of Practice

The work of the best lawyers combines diligent legal work with a genuine concern for the well-being of the client. Here, everyone’s needs are met. Even the best lawyers with the best arguments can lose a case, or fall short of their client’s desired outcome. In a poetic practice, a skillful lawyer weaves together high-quality legal work, attention to the human element of the matter, and the lawyer’s own personal touch. Different attorneys can have vastly different life experiences, and their undergraduate studies can cover the spectrum from history and politics to music, art, and religion. Good lawyers draw upon their whole life experience to relate with the client as a human, and provide customized legal services to their client with wisdom.

Clients may come to the initial consultation thinking that they want to take the other party to the cleaners. The best lawyers will dig around underneath that to find out if the client understands the implications of that position, including the budget, and whether the client really wants that. Clients may have been coached by friends, family members, or anyone else, and they may have lost sight of what they really want. In a divorce with kids, for example, they may believe they want the house and six nights a week with the kids. But, in reality, maybe the mortgage payment is not affordable once the client is flying solo, and the spouse is a great parent. Maybe the client truly wants the kids to have a great relationship with both parents, and it isn’t worth fighting to reduce the spouse’s time.

Good lawyers can draw from their own experience, both as an individual and as an attorney who has been down the road before with other clients. Good lawyers can help a client to zoom out and take a holistic view of their situation and their family. Maybe the health and well-being of their children depends on having good access to both parents. And maybe there is enough money to go around and set up both parties for success, post-divorce. And maybe the long-term well-being of the children depends on seeing their parents setting a good example of mature, compassionate conflict resolution that the children can follow as they grow up.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent presentation to the Compassionate Lawyer Society at Drake University Law School by District Associate Judge Colin Witt. He opened with the reading of a poem: The House by the Side of the Road by Sam Walter Foss. The poem itself was the touchstone for concepts within his presentation, but also the choice to open with a poem, at all, served as a meaningful glimpse into who Judge Witt is, as a person. He emphasized the importance of focusing on human element in his role on the bench. This can serve as a reminder to the practicing attorney that providing excellent service to the client requires a keen understanding of the human condition. This, in turn, requires intentional and zealous self-care, so that the attorney is well-rested, healthy, and available to fully commit to listening to the client and advising and advocating for the client with integrity.

Hope, With a Smile

IMG_0684When I passed the bar exam in 1982, I became the second practicing lawyer in my family. My father, a 1958 graduate of Drake University Law School was the first, and he taught me how to be a lawyer. In 1987 I took my first training as a mediator.   I trained my father and other seasoned attorneys in the process, feeling haughty that I taught dad a new skill.

Fourteen years after Dad’s death,  it is abundantly clear that Dad taught ME how to mediate.

My father grew up in a part of the city of West Des Moines, (known previously as Valley Junction,) where everyone knew him as “Danny.” He had a small law office in a remodeled house, and  as a young girl I would earn money answering the phone and noticing all of the interesting people who came to see Dad.  His clients were all colors, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds and they included flamboyant “nightclub people” who were in the crowd around his parent’s bar and steak house. Several spoke broken English. Dad once told me one of the things he loved about being a lawyer was that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door.” Whoever walked in got to see Danny, always with a smile on his face, and they never felt rushed to leave or like the billable hour clock was ticking loudly. As they passed my receptionist’s desk people always left the office with a lighter step than when they had come in.

When I was a little girl, Dad  served as “justice of the peace” performing marriages.  People would come to be married at our family home  and my two brothers and I would watch the wedding from the top of the stairs. I now see that many of the people who came to be married were unconventional couples for the times; interracial couples, hugely pregnant women, people who were obviously poor, people who were stressed and unhappy at the occasion. My father smiled and treated them all with respect and he let my brothers and me throw rice as the couple drove out our curving driveway.

Dad’s friends were the bankers, the insurance men, doctors, and other lawyers, but it didn’t matter if he was talking to a businessman in a starched shirt or a worker with dirt and grime on his clothes, he treated every person the same. He gave them respect, listened, joked with them, and of course flashed them that ever present smile. My dad was the first person people went to when there was any trouble not just legal trouble. Be it their house, their finances, their spouse, their children or their state of mind, people knew they could count on Danny to help.  Whether it was calling his friend the banker to see about a loan for them, sending them to his doctor friend to for a physical, even paying their utility bill out of his own pocket if their lights were shut off, my dad gave them each something that they lacked before they talked to him: hope.

Often on Sundays after we worshiped at the Greek Orthodox church, Dad would take us to the nursing home to visit the elderly Greeks and old Valley Junction folks, to say hello and let them know they were being remembered. I mostly hated those visits because I was a kid and I wanted to be doing something else. But I was stuck going, so I watched my dad interact with the people during our visit, sometimes listening to the same story week after week. I watched how tender he was with them, having all the time in the world to hear them, letting them know they mattered, and administering that same medicine to everyone: hope with a smile.

Dad always looked professional. Every day my mother laid out a suit, shirt and tie for him to wear. He always looked like a stylish Perry Mason. When people came to his office they saw a man who looked like he had wisdom and authority. He made you feel better just sitting across the desk from him. He looked like a lawyer should look.

My father did lots of free or reduced fee legal work. In addition to working through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Program, he helped people have access to justice through his office. When he died we found many clients on the books with hundreds of dollars of bills that they were paying off at $25 per month. I never saw my dad turn a client away.

Dad wasn’t perfect but he also handled his imperfections with class. An active member of gambler’s anonymous, he donated time to assist fellow gamblers with their recovery. He told his own story without shame, knowing that his testimony would help others who suffered with the addiction. Showing them that a smart successful lawyer faced his struggles head on, set an example for others to find their own courage.

When I first introduced my dad to the concept of mediation he said “This is how we resolved cases in the old days. The other lawyer and I would sit down and drink a scotch and when we were done talking the case would be settled. And we always kept our word.” I snickered wondering how he could have such a lack of insight. In mediation you had to ask certain questions, do risk analysis with the parties, employ skillful negotiation strategies. You had to write out a full mediation agreement. What did he know?

Turns out he knew a lot. After mediating for 29 years I have come full circle. I can’t tell you the last time I asked the magical five questions, did “the two number technique” or employed any particular mediation trickery. The most important thing  I do now is meet people with a smile on my face. I try to listen attentively to them as though we have all the time in the world. I empathize with them and give respect no matter  who they are or what I hear. I don’t worry about whether the case settles or not, or if I can claim a sterling settlement record. I act as a problem solver, exploring ideas to help resolve matters and providing options to the parties and their attorneys.

I sometimes have to translate legal ease to the clients when their own attorneys miss the fact that the client is too stressed to follow big words.  I help parties dig deep to find their highest selves and come up with an agreement that works for them. I don’t coerce them to sign something in the pressure of the moment.Inspired by Dad’s vulnerability in sharing his own story, when appropriate  I  share my own life experiences to let the people in mediation know they are not alone in navigating life’s struggles.

No matter what, as a mediator, I try to remember what every good lawyer knows. Hurting people look to us for help. In addition to our legal knowledge we can dispense respect, wisdom, empathy, and courage. And most importantly, the medicine developed by Danny.  Hope, with a smile.

Living in Integrity

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”-Mark Twain

Success concept. Isolated on white

I have always tried to be a “good person.” When I’ve missed the mark an uncomfortable feeling comes up after, often lingering even after time has passed.

In tempting circumstances the inner alarm usually sounds just as I step off the cliff, leaving me a choice to abort the mission.: “I really shouldn’t do this, but……” When I don’t move forward it’s a choice. When I do move forward it’s a choice.

Reality television shows; public figures with no boundaries; children exposed to adult issues; venom spewing on Facebook; politicians who exploit power; and foul language being bantered about  appear to be the norm. This leaves those of us trying to “do good” and “be good” feeling like Martians.

How can those of us seeking to do the right thing support each other?

  1. Define what “doing good” means for us. As a lawyer and writer, words are my passion and I introduced powerful ones to my children at a young age. Before she started kindergarten, my daughter Danielle would report: “Mom, Courtney isn’t acting in integ-witty,” when tattling on her sister.

Integrity is a great catch-all word for the qualities of doing good. It means making good moral and ethical choices, acting with sound character, being honest and trustworthy, and most importantly being accountable when I’m outside of integrity. I’ve made my fair share of poor choices stepping squarely into a gray area and then shutting down the barometer that would help me navigate. But I’ve never stopped trying to “stay awake” to living and acting with integrity. Those of us in this fight must never stop trying.

  1. Live and speak about our values even if they are unpopular. I follow a mentor online and his blogs and podcasts highlight his high values without preaching. He also honors his wife of 30+ years and doesn’t minimize or joke about her, a breath of fresh air for this divorce lawyer. His posts are like an oasis even though I don’t ascribe to all of his philosophies. His insights help me refine my own moral code and support that I’m not alone in fighting the good fight.

After writing my book The Compassionate Lawyer, I began to publicly speak about some of the questionable practices of lawyers, challenging my profession to be more compassionate. I took barbs from some who thought I was a Pollyanna and not a “real lawyer” because of my views.

A small number would come up to me after the speeches to express support. They were largely miserable lawyers, living outside their value system because they felt that had to in order to practice law. Hearing that others were striving to be a different kind of lawyer, helped them reclaim their authenticity. As a result we have formed the first Compassionate Lawyer Society in the country at Drake University Law School. It’s a group whose mission is to educate, encourage and support fellow attorneys in the pursuit of justice through compassion and excellence.

  1. Use “the pause.” One of the most valuable life skills I’ve learned is to identify whether I am in a state of emotion or clear headedness when I am making decisions. When difficult choices come down the pike, if we are in emotion we are likely to make a poor choice. It’s not only negative emotion that fuels a poor choice it’s also strong positive emotion that has a similar effect. Both emotions filter or block our inner voice.

I’ve found by recognizing emotion and exercising “the pause,” I can reboot to my clear head and consciously making a choice with my value system on the radar. Pausing means to:

1) Stop and get an awareness (emotional or clear headed?)

2) Review the status of your body (tense? Rigid? Stressed?)

3) Breathe (the anecdote to many things in life!)

4) Open to the moment (consciously focus on the all the stimulus).

After pausing you’re better equipped to make a good choice, including deferring the decision to a later time.

  1. Find an accountability partner or partners.

I work with a coach who is a person of high integrity and characteristics I’d like to have myself. We have monthly meetings and every Friday I send him an “accountability e-mail.” In it I describe the things I am wrestling with and the steps I am taking to make good choices. I’m brutally honest and transparent. Knowing he is there to hold me accountable makes me consider choices more closely.

Reaching out to our supporters takes away the isolation and holds us accountable. I am mutually supportive with others in my circle, who are on a similar path and have texted them when I am on the precipice of doing something stupid. I serve as this accountability partner for other lawyers and law students who work with me as a coach.

In our legal practices it’s critical that lawyers encourage our clients to do the right thing and choose integrity every time. They look to us for wisdom and guidance. From a client email I received after a consultation with him on continuing to take the high road in his co-parenting relationship :

“ I really appreciate the “validation”….even when you know you’re taking the right course of action it can still be very difficult to do so. Hearing a “keep it up” sometimes is very helpful.”

  1. Exercise self compassion. Once we set our intention to live in integrity, it’s ineveitable that we will face circumstances where it’s easier to do the opposite. When we stumble instead of reminding ourselves of our imperfections and prior failures, we have to regroup and get back in the game. Some of my major integrity cracks have been my greatest teachers, energizing me even more towards the goal. Perseverance builds patience, character, and other byproducts of the good life.

By setting our sights on doing good, we create a tremendous momentum that empowers others to follow suit. There are abundant fruits from the lives of those living in integrity. Can you dream with me about the impact such an effort would have on the world?

It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”

 Mahatma Gandhi

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