If I hadn’t seen with my own eyes how a single slice of pumpkin pie can transform a law life from despair to joy, I might not have believed it.
Yet I did see it. And though it might be oversimplifying things to give the pie full credit, it probably isn’t.
This happened in the second year of the new century, back when I still had hair, New Coke was a thing, and a cow named Cincinnati Freedom made a thrilling dash for liberty by jumping a six-foot fence at a slaughterhouse and eluding authorities for weeks.
I was practicing law on the second floor of a Franklin Street building in Chapel Hill. My office was just above an Indian restaurant, and I was constantly hungry. Both literally and metaphorically.
Somehow I stumbled into a niche of representing lawyers in licensing and disciplinary cases. I quickly came to realize that lawyers in trouble with the State Bar were Triple A clients. By that I mean they were usually ashamed, anxious and angry. Often all three at once.
But Everybody Does It!
One cloudy morning, a lawyer showed up with a dreaded certified letter from a Certain Address in Raleigh.
“This has never happened to me before,” she said, her eyes downcast in shame, then wide with anxiety. “I’m not going to lose my license, am I?”
She was charged with sending a traffic solicitation letter that didn’t comply with the ethics rules on advertising. I began explaining that this was not a capital crime, when she interrupted angrily.
“It wasn’t my fault,” she said, and proceeded to blame the printing company, her secretary, and other lawyers who solicited traffic cases. “You should see their letters.”
A few days later she completed her proposed response to the bar. It dripped with anger – mostly at getting caught. Attached were letters from competitors she argued were worse than hers.
I read her screed and sighed.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
We trudge through life waiting for something momentous to happen to transport us from our petty, mundane existence to the Magical Land of Oz. Yet little miracles abound daily, if only we choose to open our eyes and see.
So it was with my traffic lawyer-client. She believed she had been treated unfairly. She was honest and hard-working, and what had it gotten her? A bar grievance and an appointment with a lawyer in an office that reeked of lamb vindaloo.
But then something momentous actually did happen. She went home to Florida for Thanksgiving and returned a different person.
“I revised my bar response,” she said, serene and smiling as she handed me a piece of paper. “See what you think.”
She began this new version by admitting her traffic letter did not conform to the rules. She apologized for the error. She said she had learned a valuable lesson. She closed by asking the grievance committee to consider her spotless record as it decided her case.
It was a perfect response.
I asked: “So what changed?”
“Maybe. Try me anyway.”
She said as she celebrated Thanksgiving with her family she saw how much she had to be grateful for. Good health, a kind mate, loving kin. She realized she enjoyed the law but hated practicing solo – especially running a business alone. So she’d decided to draw on her prior career in hospital administration to apply for jobs at law firms with healthcare practices.
And something else. She had contacted the bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program for help with stress, burnout and career transition.
“But mostly it was the pumpkin pie,” she said.
She explained that her family had a pumpkin pie recipe that had warmed hearts and won blue ribbons for generations. For too long she had gone without it. One bite had filled her with happiness – and opened her eyes to new possibilities.
“Here,” she said. “I brought you a piece.”
Lizards and Little Things
“For happiness, how little suffices,” said Fredrich Nietzsche long ago. “The least thing precisely. A lizards’s rustling, a breath, a wink, an eye glance—little maketh up the best happiness.”
Here I must confess to never having been a huge fan of pumpkin pie. But my thinking changed that autumn day. My client’s gift was indeed transformative - just a tiny slice, but that’s all it takes.
The days grow short in November. The light does strange things. You look out your window and see an asphalt parking lot. Then you look again and the sky is red and gold, and there is no shame or anxiety, only thankfulness.
Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. He likes pretty much any kind of pie. Or cake. He wanted to name his youngest child Cincinnati Freedom but was overruled by his much wiser partner. Want a storyteller-speaker for your next bar meeting or CLE? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org 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.