From the time I was a little girl I struggled with perfectionism.
I suppose it started as a result of the attention I got when I did something extraordinarily well. “Wow, that is great! You are really something!” Hearing those accolades gave me a higher sense of self worth.
I remember bringing home one of the few “B” grades I ever got in high school. “What? No straight A’s?” my father said in sarcastic jest; yet to me it was a devastating reminder that I had fallen short of the perfect 4.0 that semester.
Excelling and doing our best becomes perfectionism when the need to achieve becomes compulsive. Over time, I realized doing things perfectly was my dysfunctional coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Everything became black and white; it was either perfect or not. Because you can’t always be perfect I would become dissatisfied with myself and work harder, do more, over-function like a pro.
My wake up call came when I failed the bar exam the first time I took it, just out of law school. That glaring imperfection, in public for all to see, caused me to feel shame and unworthiness. Because I hadn’t really ever failed before I wasn’t’ sure how to handle it.
As lawyers, failure doesn’t sit well with us. If we lose a trial, or don’t prevail on an appeal, or are unhappy with our performance, we might agonize and rehash the circumstances for days on end. For some of us such failure or imperfection can set us back and cause depression or worse.The anecdote to perfection is that we have to learn to fail, and most importantly to have resiliency, or the ability to bounce back.
Resiliency is a lost art in America. The failure to have healthy bounce back is becoming worse because many of us are raising our children, to get the trophy. In our quest for imparting self esteem we shower our children with indiscriminate praise and tell them that they are special, amazing, extraordinary and well, you know, perfect!
A recent report from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence highlights the fact that today’s teens are unskilled at resiliency. In fact, a 2013 survey of college students shows that more than half suffer from overwhelming anxiety and a third experience intense depression during the school year. Business leaders are concerned this will adversely impact the United States’ ability to compete globally if those students are tomorrow’s leaders. This report and others asks whether we might be emphasizing the wrong things in our kids. At what point do emotional management and non cognitive skills have to be as important as intelligence and being in accelerated academic classes?
Does resiliency seem to be a problem for you or your children? If so, how do you become resilient and teach your children do the same?
Often we are packing shame or disappointment and think that sharing with others is an embarassment or even a burden. Chances are there are people in your circle who would be glad to help you bounce back if given the chance. Staying in your own bubble of negativity and disappointment not only keeps you from having resilience, it can drag down the loved ones who have to live with you in your negative state.
Resilience isn’t easy. But it’s necessary to lead a full and productive life and becomes easier with practice. Since that bar failure over thirty years ago I have gone on to lead a productive and fulfilling life as a lawyer, with many triumphs and other disappointments along the way. I found my life’s passion in serving as a mediator in legal disputes. I wonder what might have happened if I had let that defining moment defeat me.
And remember, nobody’s perfect.
“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”- James 1:4
This blog was originally published in December, 2012.It is sent out with love to women struggling with their first Christmas post-divorce. You are not alone.
The experts will tell you that you need a full year to recover from divorce. This is based partially on the fact that you have to go through all of the holidays once without your former spouse. Christmas was already a difficult time for me since my dad died a week before Christmas during my first marriage after I’d taken care of him as a hospice patient in my home for months. I remember putting him in a wheelchair from his bed in the guest room and wheeling him in to watch my children decorate the Christmas tree. After divorcing FP in October, the first post-divorce Christmas came quickly and I had to find a way to cope.
Wanting to put on a brave face, I decided to gather up my women friends and have a party. I sent out an email: “At this holiday time you always hear about the wise men but what about the wise women? I am inviting the wisest women I know to a ‘Women of Wisdom’ gathering at my home. My two daughters will be in attendance. Please come with two gifts for them: your best piece of wisdom and the one song they need on their iPod.” Continue reading
One of the most important relationships in my life has been working with my life coach. I began working with Paul when I was struggling with finding a sense of purpose. Was I really meant to be a lawyer? Or had I missed the mark for my destiny and just followed in the path opened by my lawyer-father?
Having taken a course from Paul based on his workbook The Extraordinary Power of A My Focused Life: A workbook for leaders who want to finish well I’d answered the question about my purpose. Yes, I was meant to be a lawyer. But that was only the first part of the answer. Once I’d confirmed my purpose what should I do next?
An epiphany came that I needed to write a book, and to write articles and blogs about compassion and spirituality issues, particularly for lawyers. The idea of writing a book was daunting and since I’d have to do it while simultaneously working in my busy law practice, I was sure it would never happen. So, I hired Paul to coach me. The Compassionate Lawyer was published in 2014 and I am editing a second book now.
I wonder now how I ever got along without a coach. Being thrilled with the impact coaching had on me, I took coaching training and have worked for the past few years in serving as a coach to others. Most of my coaching clients are lawyers and law students but I also coach divorcing people in how to find a lawyer and navigate the legal system in their divorce. My coaching practice is growing and it’s one of the favorite things I do.
What is coaching? Coaches listen intently to their clients, asking questions so the person being coached will be able to think more deeply. The client is then able to find solutions in a way that makes them feel empowered to take action. Unlike a mentor who gives advice, the coach controls the urge to tell people what to do and instead uses questions to draw out thoughts and ideas. In my coaching relationships we “do life together” in intentional scheduled conversations. Every conversation produces insights, discoveries and action steps.
Who can be a coach? As a lawyer I am a professional problem solver and as a “seasoned” lawyer I can draw from years of skills training and life experiences. That being said, I found the coaching skills training to be some of the most transformative training I have ever taken. It literally changed the way I operate in most all of my relationships. I found when I took to having conversations with my adult children from the coaching vantage point instead of as the intrusive mother, our relationships grew. While many people say they are a coach, it’s like saying you are a mediator. Anyone can label themselves this or a that, but without skills training they can be dangerous. The coaching title isn’t regulated so beware.
How is a coaching relationship structured? The structure and cost of each coaching relationship is different. Some of the people I coach meet with me once a month (in person or virtually) and send me weekly accountability emails. Some only structure meetings with no contact in between. Some have a defined term; with others we just check in regularly to see if the relationship is still fruitful. I have worked with my own coach for years meeting monthly, moving to biweekly coaching meetings during times of focused productivity or unexpected lethargy. I sent weekly accountability emails to him for years. Now I’ve moved to an occasional email between in person sessions. I cried and floundered during my first meetings and now come prepared with focused agenda items and action plans including a diagnosis of what I think went wrong for things that have not come to fruition. Each coach charges either an hourly or session rate, which may vary depending on circumstances.
What makes a good coaching relationship? The productivity goals are secondary for me, and the best byproduct of my work with Paul is how he points out areas of my personal growth and increased focus. For others who hire a coach, it may be all about finished work product. Each coaching relationship takes on it’s own personality. Some young lawyers I coach are in their own solo practices and enjoy having a more experienced lawyer helping them think through things. Other lawyers have productivity goals. Law students often need someone to help them with stress management and overcoming perfectionism. Experienced lawyers are often looking for more meaning in a stagnant law practice. While a lot of people leave the law during those times of restlessness, I am a proponent of helping lawyers stay in the law while finding ways to practice more authentically. My divorcing coaching clients are intimidated with the legal system, and want an experienced guide to walk alongside them that isn’t their own lawyer.
Why do I love being a coach? Every day in my legal practice I have to “fix” problems for my clients. As a coach, I don’t have to “fix” anyone or anything. I just have to hold space for people to feel safe enough to unearth what is inside of them. Being a coach inspires me to do better work in all my relationships, business and personal. For me, having a coach is like having another family member who is unconditionally in your corner even in your imperfections. I’ve had plenty of meetings with Paul bemoaning how I “botched things” and asking him to help me process how I would regroup. And when I received the Drake alumna of the year award Paul and his wife Leslie were there with me at he head table clapping and smiling. I feel the same sense of pride over the people I coach as I see them moving their lives forward in meaning and purpose, fully awake.
Is coaching for you? Let’s explore that question with no cost or obligation to “sign up.” I love connecting, whether we end up working together or not. Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”-Philo of Alexandria
In my love affair with perfectly foamed lattes, I’ve spent many happy days at Starbucks. When the children were small, my friend Laura and I would meet there every single day. I would have a latte, usually with nonfat milk, except when I went through my soy phase. Laura would have an Americana with room for cream.
The Phoenix area has a million Starbuck’s, so we would call each other (before texting was available) to coordinate which location was convenient for our meeting, based on our schedules. “I’m picking up the triplets at school early for a dental appointment,” she might say.
“I will be at the church, can we meet half way in between?” I’d respond, and for several years we accommodated each other without the slightest amount of stress.
“I need to go first today,” one of us would say once we sat down with our coffees. We poured out stressors and anxiety becoming each other’s amateur therapists. People are in disbelief that we only missed a handful of days over the course of several years, before I moved back to Iowa.
Our daily meetings grounded me during years where I was lonely because of a traveling husband, unsure how to raise kids, and yearning for my lawyer world during a period as stay at home mom. Laura could validate my feelings, tell me the kid’s coughs needed Robitussin and being a lawyer herself, explore the injustices of the OJ Simpson case based on an analysis of the evidence.
I supplied similar support to her as she raised triplets with her busy emergency room physician husband. By the time we finished our coffee and dashed to our respective mom mobiles to get back to our duties we were poised to face life with a fresh approach.
At our favorite Starbucks, Carl was the manager. Because we were regulars, it was like meeting another friend when he was working. When he transferred locations we moved our rendezvous to his new store whenever possible.
When I was divorced from my children’s father, I was in between jobs, having given up my status as VP of a California based mediation firm to try to save a failing marriage. Post-divorce I was left having to regroup to get a job in Scottsdale, and doors were not opening.
One day at coffee, I made a spontaneous inquiry of Carl. “Carl, would you ever hire me?”
Carl was puzzled knowing I was a lawyer, but also knowing Starbucks provided medical health benefits, which I needed. The next thing I knew I was handed a green apron and a post at a new Starbucks Carl was managing in a stylish part of Scottsdale.
The people I worked with had no clue I was a lawyer. I tried to keep that fact underground, partly from embarrassment that I was underemployed, and also to avoid getting asked for legal advice. I was just “Kim,” and I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Secretly I was “Kim, the lawyer who struggles to steam milk.”
My twenty-something coworker Maggie became my guide to the Starbuck’s world. Keeping up with a busy caffeine -seeking crowd, was not easy. Some customers were rude and impatient, some downright hateful, others were pleasant. Those who said hello, asked how I was getting along as the “newbie,” and called me by name were a joy. I was working hard, on my feet, trying to live up to Carl’s rigorous standards for a clean store, going home tired at the end of my shift, particularly on days when it had started at 5 a.m.
If I would gripe to Maggie she never engaged, but instead was always upbeat, expressing gratitude for her job. Maggie would often excuse herself abruptly for a bathroom break. I became curious as to why she would leave her work station so suddenly. Eventually I asked a coworker.
“Maggie has cancer,” he told me. “She is going through chemotherapy and leaves her post to get sick. She has to work to keep the insurance. Poor thing should be home in bed.”
I was shocked. Here I had been a prissy Scottsdale lawyer/mom who had thought I was so noble working at Starbucks. Right beside me was Maggie, struggling to survive. I eventually asked Maggie if there was anything I could do to help her. She seemed disappointed that her secret was out, and basically said “Thanks so much but I am fine. I enjoy working with you.” That was it.
The next morning when it was still dark, as I went in to open the store I saw Maggie getting off the bus. For the first time in my life, I was unable to know what to do to help someone. I decided the best thing I could do to honor her was to watch her humility up close and to learn to do something about my own ego based on her example.
A few mornings later a particularly obnoxious business woman came to the counter enraged, oblivious to the line packed tightly out the door. “You are out of cream!” she squealed. “Perhaps “you people” don’t know what it is like to be a busy executive needing to keep on your schedule! We get delayed by something that you should be taking care of!”
My initial instinct was to lash back saying: “I will have you know I am a lawyer and I doubt YOU are qualified to argue before the Supreme Court!” At the same time, I saw Maggie down the counter from me, smiling and selecting a pastry for a customer.
“I am so sorry ma’am, let me get you that cream right away,” I said instead, grabbing the decanter and filling it up. “I am sorry you were inconvenienced and I hope you have a wonderful day.”
Somehow I was able to channel what I’d learned from Maggie. And strangely, in the turn of a moment, I really did want the woman to have a wonderful day. For all I knew she was in a struggle of her own, unable to handle it with Maggie’s grace.
Eventually I left Starbucks and Arizona, resuming my law and mediation practice in Iowa. Leaving Laura’s friendship was devastating. I visit Arizona often and we always “do coffee” daily while I am there.
I ‘ve gone back to the Starbucks where I worked. It’s been totally remodeled. Carl is gone to stores unknown. Maggie is not there. I wonder if she is even alive.
Now, when I walk into a Starbucks I take a moment to look the barista in the eye, smile, make small talk and even call them by name. I do the same with the clerk at the grocery store and the cashier at the gas station. I know from my work at Starbucks that a little kindness makes all the difference.
And all of our lives, matter.
This post was originally published in 2013. My son Clint, age 23, has started working part time as a barista at Starbucks so it reminded me of this post. Welcome to the barista family son!
Growing up in the Greek Orthodox church, the liturgical cycle always brought rhythm to my life. “Feast days” on the calendar brought great joy and celebration. Days of great piety, increased prayer and restriction of food appeared in “fast days.” When there’s a fast, you know that a feast day is around the corner. Likewise, as feast days wind down you know fast days are ahead. Knowing what is coming, and that cycles change and resurface, is comforting.
Like the church calendar, life is cyclical. Days seem to cruise along “on a roll” with things going well, even amazingly well. Life is exciting, inspiration is present and things are “in the flow.”
Then, seemingly out of nowhere what worked before doesn’t seem to work anymore. Inspiration dries up. There’s a sense of drifting and there’s no clear picture of where life is going. What happened?
Unfortunately there is no calendar that shows us the date when flow will be reinstated. We may even begin to doubt it’s ever coming back. These times of “in between” are sometimes referred to as “transition.” They usually involve self-doubt, decreased motivation, lack of clarity and a sense of drifting.
Transition typically goes through the following cycle, as described in Stuck by Terry Walling:
1. Entry. Signs of entering transition include self-doubt, lack of focus and direction, diminished confidence, confusion and restlessness. You may feel like you live on Mars and there’s a heightened conflict with yourself and others. You may feel unable to move, stuck in quicksand with no clear direction on where to go next or even what is causing the feelings of confusion.
Your role: Stay open and awake and realize you are entering transition. Some of the best personal growth will come about through transition if you recognize and welcome it. Write down your questions in a journal or share them with a trusted friend who will help you endure the difficulty without helping you short circuit it. Trust that answers will unfold if you have the courage to ride the wave.
2. Evaluation. During this phase values and life convictions start to sift through. What do you believe? Who is your real self? Evaluate your life; are you living within your value system? What is working in your life? What’s not working? What is causing you conflict and stress, and why? What does your soul tell you it needs?
Your role: This is the proving ground and where the faint of heart turn back. Spend periods of mindfulness or quiet to reflect on what brought you to transition and where you feel you are yearning to go. Spend time developing a personal values statement and ask yourself if your life reflects alignment with your values. Sit with the discomfort, recognizing it is integral in order for breakthrough. Journaling or processing with a good coach can also help you through this phase.
3. Alignment . After this reflection something that must be given up usually rises to the top. It may be something in your character, a habit, a relationship, a job, a lifestyle, a spiritual paradigm or other things large or small. Acceptance of this need for change can be frightening, but it is critical in order to gain something more authentic and meaningful in the future. Recognition brings up other challenges such as self acceptance, fear of change, shame or guilt from past mistakes, or the ego’s denial of what you’ve uncovered.
Your role: You are at a pivotal juncture. Will you have the courage to face what you’ve uncovered or will you bury it in numbing activities or denial? Instead, can you embrace the beauty of uncovering new insights and self awareness? Can you trust that changing your life in a meaningful way will result in a new freedom and joy? Can you surrender to where life is calling you?
4. Direction. This phase produces breakthrough. It may be an “ah hah moment,” a chance meeting, something you hear in passing that hits you like it was meant for you to hear, a nugget you uncover in an unexpected way or even a dream. For some who are spiritual it may be a “supernatural natural” occurrence such that you believe you have divine direction. The transition doesn’t have an abrupt ending but the fog begins to lift.
Your role: Begin to make a game plan for next steps to apply what you’ve uncovered. Coming out of transition with the new information can be exhilarating, especially because the work in the middle of a transition will often have been painful and grueling. Be sure to make clear headed well thought out decisions and don’t respond spontaneously or emotionally. Enlist a trusted friend or skilled coach to help you think it through.
Transition isn’t a “one and done” process. Like the church calendar, it’s a process that is constantly repeating. Most of our lives will have a series of transitions. The big ones are:
“Awakening” in our 20s and 30s when we are restless and trying to decide “Who/what shall I be?”
The “Deciding Phase” in our 40s and 50s where we wonder if we are doing what we are here to do. “Am I following my purpose?”
In our late 50’s and beyond it’s the “Finishing Stage” where we reflect on our legacy. “Will my life matter when I am gone? With whom can I share my life wisdom and experience in order to enrich their lives and leave a lasting legacy?”
Within the big life transitions there are repeated smaller phases of transitions.
Since I learned about the transition cycle a few years ago, I recognize quickly when I’m entering transition. Instead of dreading it as I did in the past, I appreciate all that the process will bring. It can be difficult to endure at times, but I know that the fruits of the process are monumental, and that they will come every single time without fail. Embracing transition has changed my life.
If you are interested in exploring whether you’d like to hire me as a coach contact me: email@example.com
“It is not enough to win a war; it is more important to organize the peace.”
Invested in the grievance stories magnified by their lawyers, family law clients often become repeat customers. Whether through initial actions, modifications or contempt proceedings, family law practice can be steady business for the lawyer, but often leaves festering wounds for the families we represent.
Hard fought family cases can also hurt family lawyers. Our suffering clients call us non stop, email us long diatribes, even show up at our office unannounced and agitated. Fueling the fire by delivering scathing interrogatories or through biting cross-examination can wear on an advocate’s mind, body and spirit.
In response, family lawyers are starting to expand their practices to focus on peacemaking. What makes a lawyer a peacemaker?
1. They practice law with connection and authenticity. Peacemakers don’t think it makes them less of a lawyer because they refuse to heap more hurt on hurting people, especially when children are involved. They genuinely care about the well being of their clients, their colleagues and themselves and believe that peaceful problem solving approaches are healthier for everyone.
2. They use proactive early intervention. Peacemakers recognize that the parties will still have to work together even after the legal intervention, so they set a tone of healing instead of aggression from the outset of a case. Whether through mediation, collaborative law, or simply meeting with the other lawyer to discuss the case, peacemakers agree to customize a strategy that works for both clients. They look for ways to streamline the legal process instead of letting it be driven only by court deadlines.
3. They use an interdisciplinary approach to conflict. Family lawyers are expected to be lawyer, counselor, financial advisor, parenting coach, communication expert, real estate analyzer and retirement guru. Peacemakers recognize the best use of the lawyers’ time is for legal advice, drafting and interfacing with the judge. They involve specialists including therapists, child development experts, financial advisors, realtors, and social workers to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for the family. Adding these experts mean the family has a highly specialized team often providing lower overall cost for comprehensive decision making. Lawyers focus on what they do best, and minimize the stress of trying to solve all the client’s problems themselves.
4. They encourage clients to “do the right thing.” Peacemakers don’t consider it a “win” to have someone pay as little child support as possible, if it means children aren’t financially supported at the other parent’s house. They don’t automatically fight to minimize a healthy and loving parent’s time with their children, at the request of a heartbroken client. These lawyers use words like “healing” and “forgiveness” and may set up infrastructures to improve trust and teamwork between parents. They help clients write a new forward focused story of life transformation that identifies the client as the hero, not the victim of the story.
5. They model emotional intelligence. Active listening, compassion and empathy are key skills used by peacemaking lawyers. “Patience is the greatest attribute of a peacemaker,” says Dick Calkins, a longtime advocate of peacemaking law. These lawyers don’t thrive on depositions with blistering accusatory questions so their clients can see their lawyer hurt their partner. Instead, they work together respectfully and cooperatively, modeling behavior families will need in order to heal. That may include producing documents voluntarily upon request and using calm reasoned discussion instead of threats.
6. They take the long view and encourage clients to do the same. Author of the ABA bestselling book “Lawyers as Peacemakers” J. Kim Wright puts it this way: “The upheaval of divorce can be very emotional and uncomfortable. It is easy to succumb to the emotions of the moment and strike out, do some damage, hurt you because you hurt me. Reacting provides short-term satisfaction and guarantees long-term conflict.
Peacemaking focuses on the long view, aligning with long-term values and goals. What relationship do these parents want to have in five, ten, twenty years? Who goes to the first day of school? Who will celebrate the team championship with your daughter? Will you dance at your son’s wedding or boycott because your ex will be there? The long view isn’t easy, but it is the path that focuses on the well-being of your child, not the emotions of the moment.”
7. They are creative in their approach to conflict. Each case is viewed as a unique set of circumstances requiring a customized approach of creative problem solving. Lawyers are creative people, but in traditional practice they aren’t encouraged to “think outside the box.” Peacemakers unleash creative thinking without feeling intimidated in putting forth a unique idea that isn’t borrowed from the standard stipulation template.
Often, the biggest impediment for peacemaking lawyers is the other lawyer. If opposing counsel makes aggressive moves or promotes themes of “fight to win,” or “let’s let the judge decide,” it frustrates peacemaking opportunities. Being a peacemaker doesn’t mean you sing kum-by-ah and get eaten alive in litigation. It means you see the peacemaking approach as a higher calling because it results in much healthier outcomes and is more satisfying to your clients and your own soul.
A baby lawyer fully trained in peacemaking skills recently told me, “I hope for the day when a client calls asking to destroy the other side in litigation and a lawyer says, “I’m sorry, I don’t engage in that type of law, it’s not healthy for families.”
And then, they call the next person on the list and that lawyer says, “I’m sorry I don’t engage in that type of law it’s not healthy for families.” And then each lawyer down the list says the same thing so that clients understand that peacemaking and healing families is what it means to be a family lawyer.”
I may not see that total shift in the practice of family law during my lifetime. But I truly believe he will.
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:
Here’s what I recommend if someone “speaks the truth in love” to you:
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.
Speaking the truth in love can be challenging, but it provides growth for those who aspire to live with authenticity and courage.
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!
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.
If you ask my three young adult children to summarize my motherly advice they would give you three words: “make good choices.” I could have easily dispensed other advice.“Don’t do drugs,” “Study hard,” “Eat your vegetables.” Instead, I concluded “make good choices” covered everything, and I made it my constant theme throughout their lives.
As they grew up, there were many opportunities to discuss choices with my two daughters and my son. There were also many opportunities to admit my own choices, good and bad, as I lived out the consequences of those choices right in front of their eyes.
The most important advice I can give to those involved with divorce is similar but more succinct: choose happiness.
I was divorced from my children’s father after 18 years of marriage. I entered into a second marriage but due to a series of devastating events, after only two years that second marriage also ended in divorce. I was so grief stricken that I could barely function. There were days I just chose to stay in bed. During that time, a friend called. “When your divorce is over, you’re going to SOAR,” she said to me.
SOAR? I was barely upright. But something in her words resonated. I WANTED to soar. I wanted to heal. Most importantly I wanted to be happy.
Through my own healing journey, and watching the thousands of people I have worked with in court and mediation, I have concluded that instead of being a victim, focusing on the sadness, and anger, You must CHOOSE happiness.
Even though I was laden with grief, I started to look up. I focused on the birds flying, flapping their wings over the lake near my home. Often there was only one bird in the sky all by itself, and I jokingly called it my spirit guide. I set my sights on soaring in happiness and used the birds as my guides.
My counselor told me “fake it till you make it.” I began to smile, laugh, speak positively about life. I took up salsa dancing. I was still in deep grief, shock even, that I was divorced. Yet I approached others with a positive, happy attitude. Consistently, I decided to choose happiness, to watch the birds, and to open my heart to life.
In his book The Untethered Soul, author Michael A. Singer says the key to staying happy is to understand your inner energies. “If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside you. When you aren’t happy your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So to stay happy, just don’t close your heart. No matter what happens, even if your wife leaves you or your husband dies, you don’t close.”
I once mediated a case where a father fled the United States after he divorced his children’s mother, leaving her unemployed, with four children to raise and $17 in the bank. He was gone 14 years. The mother told me that she had literally lain crying on the floor for days while her young children watched her. Suddenly it dawned on her that she had a choice. She could choose to be a victim, or she could choose happiness. She picked herself up off the floor, went out and got a job, took classes to refresh her teaching credential and ultimately became a teacher during the day and a sales clerk after hours. It was painstaking and slow, but she rebuilt her life.
The mediation was for the father’s failure to pay child support while he was out of the country. At one point in the mediation the two parties and I met together without lawyers in the room and the husband asked the wife “How did you manage after I left?” The wife told him, “I chose to be happy.” The wife looked at peace, very attractive and calm. She also said that as a result of choosing happiness, she was able to find forgiveness for her husband. Conversely, the husband who ran from his life circumstances was suffering with various physical maladies, looked older than his biological age and spoke from a place of regret and sadness.
Her success because of her choice is not isolated. Recently I received a call from another former client. When we spoke, she was teary and confided that since I’d seen her, her second marriage had collapsed after her second husband admitted an affair with a coworker. She was devastated.
“I know you are hurting, but I promise you, if you choose happiness, you will SOAR,” I told her.
Some months after our conversation, I received a letter from the woman. It read, in part:
Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. As crazy as it sounds, our phone conversation changed my life in an instant. I was in a pretty dark hole and trying to deal with pain, unanswered questions and figuring out how to raise my kids when I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. You said some key things to me. The first was that I would experience great happiness and great joy like I had never felt. I made a decision that if I was going to feel those things, why wouldn’t I open my heart now instead of waiting until I healed, which might not happen if I didn’t move it forward. It was an instant mind shift on my part. I have such inner peace and calm. I see my kids and my friends in a whole new light. I take it all in. I am not living to please my husband. The more I gave, the more he took. It wasn’t pretty for anyone. I am living purposely. And I’m laughing….a lot!
The formula is not as difficult as it seems. According to Singer, “You have to stay conscious, centered and committed at all times. You will have to stay one- pointed on your commitment to remain open and receptive to life. But nobody said that you can’t do this.”
And, as my counselor said, “fake it till you make it.”
What does Singer describe as proof the process is working? “ If you remain open enough, waves of uplifting energy will fill your heart.”
Eight years post divorce, my children tease me about my affinity for watching birds, particularly when there is one that seems to be the only one in the sky for miles. “There’s mom’s spirit guide,” they laugh. To this day a lone bird in the sky symbolizes a choice I made at my lowest point: I chose to soar.