Another excellent post from our friend and guest blogger, Tom Cox.
A small change in emphasis can make a big difference.
During my earliest challenging (and often terrifying) days in law school, I repeatedly asked myself the question: “How do I become a lawyer?” I am now convinced that the question was appropriate but that my emphasis was entirely on the wrong word. What I should have been asking was: “How do I become a lawyer?”
Many a soul has been wounded by the misconception that “becoming a lawyer” means not only learning and implementing certain analytical and persuasive skills and substantive knowledge necessary in the profession, but also altering one’s personality in order to fit certain widely held stereotypes of the successful attorney, some of those positive (intellectually agile, diligent, forceful, eloquent), but many much less so (aggressive, hostile, controlling, manipulative, unprincipled, glib). It is easy for a young practitioner to succumb to some of these stereotypes and attempt to self-administer a personality transplant so as to become comfortable forever playing the role of hard-charging, quick-witted, always-zealous warrior/advocate. Some of us who resisted a wholesale abdication of our former selves nevertheless accepted many of the stereotypes of what it meant to be a lawyer, and so wrestled with the question: “Am I really suited for this profession?”
I would probably be concerned about the long-term mental health of any lawyer who had never asked that question. As with many other human endeavors, practicing law at times requires that we play particular roles. Even those who view their occupation as a “calling” sometimes must perform roles outside their own comfort zones in order to carry out necessary job functions. (Just ask any clergy person.) Lawyers may be particularly prone to struggling with this question, in part because performing our professional duties often calls upon us to engage in conflict with others on behalf of our clients. Most human beings – yes, even most lawyers – do not naturally enjoy conflict, but prefer either cooperative or solitary activities. Aspiring and new lawyers need to be assured that many individuals who thrive and flourish in our profession identify themselves less as “warrior/zealots” than as “compassionate problem solvers,” and do not necessarily salivate at the prospect of heated exchanges with opposing counsel during contract negotiations or depositions.
For my own mental health and quality of life, I concluded long ago that it was essential that I not attempt or pretend to be a different person while practicing law than while engaging in the rest of my life. Donning some ill-fitting metaphorical “armor” of battle to face each day as someone other than myself proved to be both a burdensome and unsuccessful enterprise. I realized the necessity of developing an approach that allowed me to practice law, rather than one that turned me into someone else. Moreover, the more I observed highly respected and successful practitioners, it became obvious that there was no cookie-cutter mold from which great lawyers were baked, but that the group included a remarkable variety of personalities, with remarkably different professional and personal strengths.
So how do we maintain and nurture our personhood (i.e., our souls) while “performing our roles” as lawyers? Let me suggest an approach that includes two essential steps: (1) an intentional and honest personal inventory of who we are, including our personality characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, values, and aspirations; and (2) a careful evaluation of how we might best use our strengths (and even certain qualities that we may perceive as weaknesses) to our – and our clients’ – advantage in our own practice. There are many ways to approach the first step. Frequently used and effective personality testing tools (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the “Enneagram of Personality” test) can tell us things we may not have realized about ourselves and how we most effectively function. In addition to formal assessments, we should seek input from those who know us best. We can sometimes be remarkably blind to our own shortcomings, but even more so to our strengths, which are often obvious to our families, friends or colleagues.
The second step requires constant observation and intentional practice. Rather than addressing each professional situation by relying on some stereotype of “what a lawyer is supposed to do here,” we should ask ourselves “How can I best address this situation?” and then evaluate whether and how to do so consistent with our ethical and professional responsibilities. In most circumstances, we are in fact much more effective as lawyers when we can act in a manner congruent with our own personalities and capabilities, rather than attempting to “play-act” the role of stereotypical lawyer.
As lawyers, we are sometimes called upon to undertake difficult and uncomfortable tasks and to engage directly with stressful situations and people. Few, if any, normal human beings can practice law without occasionally experiencing some level of anxiety, stress or emotional fatigue. I nevertheless believe that only a small minority of us cannot function effectively within the profession while remaining true to ourselves. For that small number, an alternative career may be advisable. For the large majority of us, however, practicing law ethically, competently, and with both professional and personal satisfaction can be a reality if, but only if, we do so while respecting the essential integrity of our persons and our individual values.