There was a quote I read on a friend’s loft in college that asked, “Are you the man the boy wanted to be?” This always struck me as an interesting thought, although I’m not sure I grasped its full meaning as a twenty-something know-nothing. But from time to time things in my legal career cause me to pause and to reflect on this question and ask myself whether I am, in fact, the lawyer the first year law student wanted to be.
Sure, none of us saved the world or became general counsel of the Aspen Skiing Company, as many of us dreamed as we climbed those daunting steps on the first day of law school wearing flip flops and a T-shirt. Those dreams quickly faded after the first round of on-campus interviews (if not sooner). But as our focus shifted toward the realities of legal practice, certainly we aspired to achieve things a little closer to the surface of the Earth, maybe even making secret promises to ourselves late at night in the bowels of the law school library cramming for that seemingly impossible torts exam.
Didn’t we all assure ourselves that we would fight only the good fight and rise above the bickering that seemed to be the source of everyone’s favorite lawyer joke imparted on us just as we headed off to law school? Weren’t the ground rules of every barroom debate that the combatants be equally contentious and civil, despite the number of pitchers consumed? Didn’t we silently assure our moot court teammates that we would attack research issues with enthusiasm because we wanted to win and weren’t just going through the motions to add to our resumes? And despite the ever-escalating salaries dangled before our noses, didn’t we promise ourselves it wasn’t about the money?
I am certainly not the perfect lawyer and far from the perfect person, but after just passing my tenth anniversary of practicing law, I realized that some of those naïve law school aspirations can still serve as a useful guide toward a successful practice.
There have been far too many nights when I have gone home to my wife, giving her yet another example of why so many people seem to dislike lawyers. For one reason or another, our estimation of how a lawyer should act seems to revert back to our pre-law school understanding (and the basis of so many jokes) of the role of lawyers — arguing for the sake of argument and not to end up with a better appreciation of the issue.
If anything, law school taught us that we cannot always be on the winning side and that we should not forsake our principles trying to be. And no one gains, particularly our clients, much less our profession, when civility is sacrificed for perceived gain. After all, wasn’t it the best prepared, most measured speakers who won the moot court competition and not the testiest combatants?
And just as we laughed at the bar over exceedingly strained logic and even a basic understanding of a moot court judge’s questions, lawyers should abandon their antagonism at the courtroom door or at the end of the conference call and revert back to being friends, neighbors, and fellow members of the bar.
Too many times the lack of civility both inside the courtroom and out appears to arise from our insecurity about our position on the legal issues in the matter at hand. If law school taught us nothing else, it should have proven out the old aphorism that proper preparation prevents poor performance. How else could we justify those seemingly endless hours of highlighting, outlining and index card making? After all, weren’t we most confident, and therefore most successful, in those classes where we were most prepared?
The same premise holds true in our daily practice of law. By taking the time to honestly and effectively understand, research, and apply the appropriate legal constructs to the issue presented we will better serve ourselves, our clients, our opposition and ultimately our profession. Sure, few of us have the energy or ability to occupy the law school library until the lights are turned off, but the efficiencies learned over time and the accumulated knowledge should more than make up for the loss of time.
Finally, if we learned nothing else in law school, didn’t we learn that education and life are more than the worn path from home to class to the bars? Being a balanced person made us better students. When we exercised, we slept well, studied better and performed to our potential. And when we took advantage of all of the opportunities we never knew existed on a college campus, our minds expanded, our viewpoints shifted and understanding grew.
We should not forget these things as adults. More complete lives, whether they include family, philanthropy, religious, cultural or athletic pursuits make us better people and, therefore, better lawyers. In another ten years, I hope that I can look back and say that after twenty years of practice I am exactly where I hoped I would be when I was just ten years out of law school.
Marc Gustafson is a litigator and general practitioner at Essex Richards in Charlotte.