A new year is the time for looking forward to a brighter future, but it might be more useful to look back at how we got into this mess in the first place.
That can be hard to do. Early in my career it was surprising how often clients would show up in my office and claim to have no idea how they had landed in such a predicament. It was as if their life had been Happy Days until one day they woke up and it was American Horror Story.
How could that be? Whatever the circumstances – DWI, divorce, disbarment – weren’t they there the whole time?
And yet I came to understand they weren’t actually lying when they professed cluelessness.
“Why me?” moaned a prospective lawyer-client, face buried in his hands as we met for the first time. “How could this have happened?”
Of course I was tempted to say it happened because he stole money from clients, lied to them about it, and ignored the State Bar when it came calling. But I didn’t. Reality is a medicine best taken in small doses.
The Devil Made Me Do It
So I listened to his tale of woe: how fate had conspired against him, the rules were unfair, it wasn’t all that much money, he had already paid some of it back.
And it was true that the first time he dipped into his trust account he took only a small sum to cover office expenses. Which he soon replaced. And nobody ever knew.
But the road to ruin is gently sloped. It begins with a single Oreo cookie and Netflix, and before we know it we’ve eaten the entire bag.
“I’m not a thief,” he said, though he had continued taking money that wasn’t his until he got caught. “I was president of the county bar. On the church vestry. I do tons of pro bono. Does that sound like a thief?”
“No. It doesn’t.”
And I meant it. His life ledger contained many good deeds. And though that might carry weight at the pearly gates, it would likely be less helpful when he stood before the Disciplinary Hearing Commission.
Accepting What We See in the Mirror
“Tell me,” I said. “If you could do anything in the world and money was no object, what would it be?”
This lawyer was smart. He could see where I was headed.
“You’re saying I shouldn’t fight. That I should just give up my law license.”
And here’s the thing. I didn’t get the sense that he was ecstatic with his Law Life. I knew he loved the water, and fishing. I imagined that when he was in a boat with a rod and reel he became a brighter, better version of himself.
But that wouldn’t pay the bills, would it? And what would people think if he was disbarred? The public image that he had worked so hard to construct over the years would come tumbling down. What would be left?
Consulting the Oracle Within
We humans are complex creatures. Most of us are a unique combination of the awesome, the awful, and the average. Our lives contain both thorns and roses.
It has always been so. In Greece a couple of centuries ago, people trekked to the Temple of Apollo to consult the Oracle at Delphi. They wanted to know what tomorrow would bring. Inscribed over the main entrance was the phrase “Know Thyself.” I suspect some of the pilgrims looked up, read those words, and went back home having gotten their answer.
It’s easy for us to own our sparkling, best selves. We want the world to see us this way. It’s harder – and much less fun – to own the less sparkly parts. And yet how can progress be made without opening the whole package and pulling the darker pieces out into the light?
I wasn’t surprised that the lawyer didn’t hire me. He saw himself as the victim in his story. His instinct was to fight back. Later I read in the State Bar Journal that he ended up losing his license.
I never saw him after our one encounter. But as 2019 cranks up, I like to picture him sitting in a boat on Jordan Lake, under a golden sun and perfect sky, his mind at peace, his eyes fixed on the still line, waiting for something wonderful to happen.
Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. He lives near Jordan Lake. He once consulted a so-called oracle at the NC State Fair who incorrectly guessed his age and weight. Want a speaker for your next bar meeting, firm retreat or CLE? Contact email@example.com or 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.