Here’s a modest proposal: instead of 12 hours of mandatory CLE each year, maybe the State Bar should require 12 hours of silence instead.
It would be a triple win. The world would be quieter, clients would be happier, and our law lives would improve.
Though I suspect some lawyers would howl. Forcing me to be quiet? When I have so much to say? Outrageous!
Back in the dawn of time, when I practiced law out of a converted broom closet on Broad Street in Charleston, I spent hours pondering why life had dealt me a hand filled with jokers but few paying clients.
I couldn’t understand it. I had a framed Juris Doctorate. I had a nifty scales-of-justice paperweight. I had a complete set of the South Carolina Code. With pocket updates. What was missing?
The Gift of Gab Keeps on Giving
Then one day my baby daughter Rachel started talking. This came as a great relief to the family, which had begun to worry that her speech engine might have a defective battery.
“Da da da da,” she would babble – amazing, she already knew my name!
“Ma ma ma ma.” Her mother’s too! A miracle!
Taking a cue from my chattering child, I decided all my law practice needed was for me to talk more. Which I did. I conversed with colleagues at bar meetings. I bantered with bailiffs at the courthouse. I spoke with total strangers at the post office.
And whenever a pedestrian happened to wander within a hundred-foot radius of my office, I’d grab them and begin gabbing about how I could solve all their legal needs, including needs they didn’t even know they had.
I recall one such unfortunate who had gotten a speeding ticket.
“Traffic court is a minefield,” I said, snatching a random volume of the SC Code from the shelf and spouting off about misdemeanors and court costs and nunc pro tunc.
Pausing my monologue for a sip of water, I looked up to discover that my prospective client had fled the office in terror. Again I was alone, talking to myself.
We Doth Protest Too Much
Meanwhile, at home things had taken a regrettable turn. It seems that once Rachel started talking, she couldn’t stop. We were subjected to a nonstop stream of Dr. Seuss, nursery rhymes, and questions about why this and why that.
Even worse, in the dead of night she’d appear at my bedside to tell me about the princess and the pea. And she would tell me, and tell me, and tell me.
After yet another sleepless night, I dragged my exhausted self to the office to find a new client waiting. She had an estate problem. She and her siblings were in disagreement over what to do with their deceased parents’ home. One wanted to sell it, another wanted to keep it, and she as the personal representative wasn’t sure.
This client was smart and sensible. She laid out the options and weighed the pros and cons of each. She considered all of the relevant factors – personal, financial and otherwise.
Meanwhile, I was struggling to maintain consciousness. To stay awake, I took copious notes. I stood and began pacing – giving the impression of deep thought – and said almost nothing.
And then the conference was over.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help,” she said, adding that by simply talking through things she had realized what to do. “How much do I owe you?”
Silence is Indeed Golden
The “perfectest communication” is neither speech nor silence but exists within.
Emily Dickinson wrote that. And though her poems can be obscure, I think what she means is that the richest human connections come from empathy, and from listening, and from just being present.
The law can be a noisy place. There is a time for words, and there is a time for silence. We owe it to our clients and our loved ones – but mostly we owe it to ourselves – to create space for the latter every day.
Last month Rachel flew in from Seattle to visit. We went out for coffee. She told me about her job, her relationship, her plans. I talked some. And then for a long time we just sat there in silence, our hearts full, and nothing more needed to be said.
This post originally appeared in our March Put Into Practice newsletter