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The Attorney Who Said “I Don’t Know”

by Jay Reeves |

It’s said that knowledge is power, but sometimes not knowing is even more powerful.

Plus it makes for a happier Law Life.

I speak of course from personal experience, as one who journeys through this grand adventure in a near-constant state of bafflement and wonder. Why isn’t phonetic spelled like it sounds? Why do fools fall in love? Why is there a Rule in Shelley’s Case?

My lawyer friend Gary tells me to embrace my ignorance. And though this seems to come naturally to him, it’s difficult for me. Old habits die hard. When I emerged from the finest law school in South Carolina – hint: back then it was the only one – I possessed a Juris Doctor signed by Governor Riley and a belief that not only did I know all the answers but I needed to inform the world of that fact.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Nobody listened or cared. Pretty much every other lawyer I encountered felt their answers were as right or righter than mine, and the few clients I managed to lure into my unventilated, pigeon-pocked attic office on Broad Street in Charleston would nod appreciatively at my imparted wisdom and then go out and hire somebody else.

Luckily, I was living at the time with four Zen Masters disguised as small children who took it upon themselves to enlighten me. Or as the koan says: to help me learn the great unlearning.

The Magic of “I Don’t Know”

One of these sages, Mary Ann, used the ancient text “James and the Giant Peach” as a teaching tool.

“How can a peach grow so big,” she asked, as I read aloud to her one night.

“Well,” I said, and began a pointless discourse on fact versus fiction.

“But why is the grasshopper wearing pants?”

At which point I gave up and said, “I don’t know.”

And that was when the clouds parted.

“Me neither,” she said, and snuggled closer, blissfully happy in not knowing.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

Of course the law is not a children’s tale. And for those who practice it, knowledge is a nice thing to have. But sometimes it gets in our own way.

I discovered this when I began representing lawyers in licensing and disciplinary cases. Their stories were always different. Some had taken money that wasn’t theirs. Others had ignored their client’s phone calls.

One common thread was they all had knowledge. Often lots of it. They had successful practices, positions of status, academic achievements.

Yet invariably, they entered my office with more questions than answers. Why is this happening? What will become of me? How do I cope with this catastrophe?

And though my job was to provide answers as best I could, I came to realize that the honest response was often “I don’t know,” followed by “Let’s find out together.”

Accepting the Uncertain

It would be great if life came with a cheat sheet, or a crystal ball, or if we were all grand masters at Jeopardy!

But maybe not. Sometimes the more we know, the less we see. We lose sight of the little miracles that happen every day. We become blind to the brilliance of those around us. We stop growing.

Acknowledging “I don’t know” can be liberating. It frees us from the daunting pressure of having it all figured out.

The Beginner’s Mind

When we embrace life’s mystery – when we practice the Zen concept of “Beginner’s Mind” – we open ourselves to new and exciting possibilities.

Mary Ann just moved to New Orleans for medical school. I’m planning to visit her this spring, and we’ve been talking by phone.

“Do you know any good restaurants here,” she said, neither of us being experts on the Big Easy. “Museums? Historical sites?”

“No I don’t,” I said, sharing my daughter’s joy as she begins this new quest. “But I can’t wait to find out.”

Jay Reeves is author of “The Most Powerful Attorney in the World.” Order it from Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble. Or contact Jay for a signed copy. Jay runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers add purpose, profits and peace of mind to their practices. Contact jay@yourlawlife.com or 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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