Under Analysis: A New Year's resolution: Is it just one of those things?

By Mark Levison

There are a lot of things in a lawyer’s life. One of the first things we get as a lawyer is a diploma. I never put mine up in my office, but some lawyers do. Then there are the graduation briefcases, pens and finally a job. Sometimes there is an office with a nice view; there are business cards, paperclips, staple removers and now computers and fancy phones. When I started practicing law, lawyers didn’t get cell phones or computers. They either didn’t exist, or were too big for the office. The jury is out on whether these things have really improved any lawyer’s life. Maybe past generations had the same reservations about paperclips?

Eventually things come from cases—remembrances of battles passed or deals done. Looking around my office I see a down convertor made by a San Francisco company involved in an international copyright/antitrust case. I see a patented pill crushing syringe, a bottle of Fitz’s root beer, a giveaway from a casino opening, a football helmet worn by Detroit Lions’ linebacker Reggie Brown when he stopped breathing on the field, a signed picture from Jerry Rice, and lots of other good things. There are plaques and books. I have legal treatises in my office, but I also have books from columnists and poets to help remind me that only part of me is a lawyer.

The things lawyers get for themselves, as fruits of the profession, or mementos of cases, are cool, but less important than the things they obtain for their clients. Those things can be money—sometimes lots of it—freedom, children, companies, retribution, vindication, validation of principles and even sometimes moral victories. There’s nothing wrong with fighting over morals and legal principles. It’s just usually not affordable these days.

And there are other things lawyers get from the profession, like purpose, gratification, thanks, intellectual stimulation, excitement and pain. Pain from losing is significant, and that happens sometimes. Purpose might be the most important thing of all. It’s nice to have a calling. At times some lawyers talk about retiring in wistful terms, and refer to legal work as if it were a burden. It never seems that way to me.

My oldest daughter once told me a story I believe she read in one of the “Chicken Soup” books. A fellow is having a great time in the afterlife for the first several months. He’s leading the good life, with all the physical things he needs, but eventually gets bored and asks for a job. When he’s told there are no jobs at his particular location, he becomes indignant and claims that because he is in Heaven, he should have anything he needs to make him happy. He is informed he is not in Heaven, rather he is in Hell.

We all agree, in the end physical things really don’t measure up to the more important things in life, but sometimes we lose our focus. In my office, instead of diplomas, my walls are filled with pictures of my family. Those seems more important to me. I even have pictures of our dogs. The latest is a Puggle named Woodward who we snatched away from a group of homeless men that were beating him with sticks. (The Puggle, skinny from life on the streets, has since gotten so fat from eating the expensive prescription food required by our Great Danes, I recently suggested that Woody ought to ask his veterinarian about lap-ban surgery.) I also have pictures on my wall from interesting places I have been—in part because I have been fortunate to be paid well for what I do. Besides interesting vacations, the legal profession brings us lots of things: sometimes nice cars and watches; power and prestige; and challenges. As we begin this new year, some things we desire for our clients may not always work out. The most difficult thing in the law is to see clients disappointed. But, if we work hard, don’t take ourselves too seriously, are kind to our clients and respectful to our opponents, lots of things will come to our clients and to us. Remembering which things are more important than others would be a good New Year’s Resolution for 2011.

Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lathrop & Gage L.C. You can reach the Levison Group in care of this paper or by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2011 Under Analysis L.L.C.