Buddhist + Lawyer… Why?

As you may have guessed, I call myself a “Buddhist” and, obviously, I’m a lawyer. Why does that matter? Well, in short I think my Buddhist practice makes me a better lawyer.

I had my first formal lesson in meditation decades ago, back in my home state, when I went to a small dharma center near Ohio State (aka THE Ohio State University). There, a pudgy, kind, bald-headed, white man in saffron robes told me how to sit and taught me to pay attention to my breath. We sat for maybe 20 minutes all told and it was lovely. For lots of reasons, I never went back, but I did remember the instructions.

I started reading books about Buddhism, especially those written by the Dalai Lama and later Pema Chodron; but it took me many more years before I made meditation a regular practice. Luckily, I did so in the years before I started law school. Mindfulness, learning to be in the moment, and accepting what you cannot control—those tools alone helped me survive not only the pressures of law school, but the spectacular death of my marriage which occurred at the same time. 

Law school, much like the profession itself, is competitive by nature. Virtually all law students want to be the best and this is made tough since each course’s grades must fit the bell curve (meaning one top student only, per course). One’s grades and rankings matter for large (lucrative) law firm hiring later. I had no interest in joining such a firm, but I had to make grades for another reason: my full-ride scholarship depended on it. 

Some people take law school competition as a sort of blood sport: attack and destroy the others so you end up on top. Cheating, stealing/hiding research materials, refusing to help other students who miss a class for illness or something—those behaviors run rampant in some schools. Luckily, my law school wanted all the students to do well and did what it could to make that happen, mostly very successfully. My classmates were generally kind, shared information and class notes, and were supportive of each other. We competed, but respectfully. Rising tide lifting all boats, as it were.

Still, I wanted and needed to do well. Buddhism taught me that I had no control over what my fellow students did but only over what I did. Further, I had the power to reduce my own suffering when things did not go well by not reacting mindlessly. These ideas were liberating. It meant it didn’t matter if Ashley studied until 2am every night while I was asleep by 8:30pm (to get 8 hours sleep), or that Christina’s outline for Crim was 5 times as long as mine—I could only do my own work, my own way, and try to be as prepared for classes and exams as I could be. I also couldn’t control the professors, so when I was told by a (female!) legal writing professor that I came off as too masculine in my oral argument assignment and (I believe) got downgraded for it, I didn’t get in her face but instead shrugged it off and make sure I did better on some other part of the graded materials; because my goal was to get a good grade, not make her like me or my style.

Finally, Buddhism taught me about impermanence: nothing is solid and permanent, everything is constantly changing; so, even if something is really good, it won’t last; but neither will the really bad thing. That meant I could celebrate successes without trying to hold onto them and that I could suffer less through the bad things, knowing they wouldn’t last. I loved it every time I made the Dean’s List and I hated it when my marriage blew up, but both came and went.

Fast forward to my actual practice of law, now: I use my Buddhist practice every day in it (and yes, notice that we call each a practice). Most of my law practice involves negotiating with infringers or their attorneys (or insurance people). They want to pay as little as possible, I want to get my clients as much as I can, reasonably. Unfortunately, sometimes some people call me names and I have even been threatened with rape and death, just for standing up for creators’ rights. I know those names and threats aren’t actually about me—those are about the other person feeling out of control and trying to reassert it through bullying and fear. My Buddhist practice lets me be mindful enough to remember that none of this discussion with the nasty infringer or his rude lawyer is about me, it’s about my client’s case, so who cares if they call me names? I just stay on the actual topic, the law and the facts of the case, and try to work to a reasonable solution. Those people can sling all the monkey poo they want at me—I’m poo-proof—because I am focused on my client’s best interests, not my ego/feelings. This means I am less distracted/-able and so some lawyer’s other flashy technique will simply fail to move me off my point of focus: my client’s case.

Buddhism taught me that it is better to slow down and do less, better, than to do lots only okay. For example, I don’t take every case that is brought to me or make promises about the huge settlements/awards I will get my clients, not just because that behavior isn’t technically ethical but more because it is just wrong. Some cases should not be pursued because they are bad cases. No amount of bravado is going to save a client from paying attorney’s fees to the other side when the lawyer lies about the registration status, for example, and gets caught by the court. Sure, maybe trying that would work sometimes to get a defendant to pay up out of fear, before the status is discovered, but that is a horrible misuse of the law. I don’t want clients who think that is okay. You shouldn’t work with an attorney who thinks it is.

I don’t use generic templates for the filings I draft, because I draft with intention, including arguing the specific case’s facts and the appropriate law. Same with emails and letters to infringers and their counsels. This process is slower and as a result I probably do not make as much money as others might who have more clients and cases, but I know I’ve done my research and made the best arguments possible for each client in each document I write.

Besides, I do just fine, thank you very much. I am proud that many of my clients have been clients for many years. This wouldn’t happen if they weren’t happy with my work and its results for them. I’m always happy for new clients and cases (please do tell your friends about me), but I respect the honor of having long-time clients. I blame my Buddhist practice for that. 😉

Although I am tenacious, I am not what some people call a “bulldog” kind of lawyer. All bluster and ego makes famous (and often infamous) lawyers, but it doesn’t make them good ones. Good lawyers work with deep respect for the truth and logic, and in the service of their clients, not for fame; Buddhism respects rational logic, the truth, and wants to be of benefit of others.
Interesting how similar those are.

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that any of you start studying Buddhism—what you do spiritually is totally your own business. But after reading this, now you understand why I talk about my Buddhism and its relationship to my work: I think it makes me a better lawyer for my clients.

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