I begin by discussing my encounter with the realities of human suffering early on in my career.
I then call for the legal profession to consider the profound human and spiritual questions raised by the practice of law. Ignoring these questions is dangerous.
This post is part of a longer chapter in an American Bar Association book, Best Lawyer You Can Be: A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness (2018), by Stewart Levine. My hat is off to Stewart for persuading the American Bar Association to publish it.
This is the first part of the chapter. A second installment discusses strategies for dealing with the trauma of litigation and lawyering.
Lawyering as a Spiritual Path, The Imporance of Balance and Reflection
Many years ago, I represented a man with multiple sclerosis in a disability-related case against a public entity. Even with his faltering voice and body, this man emanated dignity, strength and kindness. When I lost his case, I laid my head down on my desk and cried.
In a classic example of overconfidence,[i] I had not anticipated the loss. My tears were the result of having my hopes for him, and, implicitly myself, shattered.
In retrospect, I see this case as an early inkling that in the course of my career, I would confront human suffering, evil, and many other difficult facets of life. It would sometimes be quite painful.
In this chapter, I share some of my thoughts on this challenge, and how to deal with it.
Working with Human Nature: A Lawyer’s Difficult Task
It is well known that many lawyers are unhappy. Many drink. Many kill themselves.[ii]
It is certainly true that each individual’s psychological problems contribute to these tragic statistics. However, the crisis in the profession also arises out of a spiritual problem — one that relates directly to what we do as lawyers.
By “spiritual problem” I mean (1) a fundamental human dilemma, (2) that cannot be resolved solely by psychological means (3) but may be worked through or transcended through spiritual or reflective practices, perhaps in conjunction with psychological strategies.
The Crisis in the Profession as a Spiritual Crisis
Just as some in the medical profession have begun to question why their profession has historically avoided questions related to physicians’ encounters with death,[iii] it is time for the legal profession to recognize that lawyering calls into question our relationship to suffering, to each other, to life.
Like physicians who must deal with illness and death every day, lawyers routinely deal with human greed, ego and selfishness. Then, there is our own selfishness and our own egotism — perhaps the most painful parts of this dilemma. When a lawyer continually strives to “win” while others lose, human goodness and human connectedness can fade into oblivion. A person may gain the world but lose his soul.
[i] I have spoken and written extensively on overconfidence, and other issues of “face,” self-esteem and self-identity in conflict resolution. For example, see my article, “The Psychology of Mediation: Issues of Self and Identity and the IDR Cycle,” 10(2) Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal 183 (2010), and my article, The Psychology and Neurobiology of Mediation, 17(2) Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution 363 (2016). For a full list of publications, see https://www.elizabethbader.com/publications-list/
[iii] See Altul Gawande, What doctors don’t learn about death and dying, on Ideas.Ted.com, available at http://ideas.ted.com/death-and-the-missing-piece-of-medical-school/ October 31, 2014.