One of my things I enjoy most about working as an attorney is that people share their stories with me. As a lawyer I hear stories about relationships, about business transactions, about careers, and just about any other aspect of life you can think of. I find these stories fascinating and I feel very honored that my clients have trusted me with information about some of the most private aspects of their lives.
I don’t know if it’s the same for all lawyers, or for lawyers who spend their days doing things other than litigation, but I feel that I’ve learned a lot about the world and life from the practice of law and the stories my clients have shared with me. The list below is some of the lessons I’ve learned that I believe have helped me to grow as a person:
1.) People are multidimensional – Whatever greatness or failure we may experience in our lives, we’re all much more than our current circumstance or single events. People sometimes make terrible mistakes and cause great harm to themselves or others, but even those of us with the worst track records have aspects that are worthy of respect and the potential for improvement. Likewise, many wildly successful people who do great things in the world also struggle with great imperfections.
2.) You can win an argument and still lose – It is normal to experience disagreements in our relationships and it’s very tempting to do all we can to prove to others that our position is the right or correct one. We trial lawyers, who argue for a living, are very susceptible to doing this in our personal relationships. The problem is that this comes at the expense of relationships. When we seek to win an argument and insist upon proving the other person wrong, we create distance between us and other person. People generally don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who constantly tells them they’re wrong or points out their shortcomings. Granted, there are times when it’s important to speak up, especially where great harm will result. However, for minor issues, it often does far more harm than good. Remember, it’s not our job to think for or fix other people. Ultimately, in relationships, you can win all the battles, but still end up loosing the war.
3.) Disrespect creates deep wounds – Believe it or not, most people come to see me because they feel they’ve been treated disrespectfully. Rarely do I ever have someone come into my office and tell me that a creditor violated the truth in lending act or engaged in an unfair and deceptive trade practice. Instead, prospective clients tell me stories of disrespect and share with me their resulting feelings of indignity. Just as the schoolyard bullies and cruel cliques of childhood inflict emotional trauma on their victims that often lasts well into adulthood, the grown-up bullies we encounter often leave severe emotional wounds behind that can take years for people to recover from, if ever. For me, this has motivated me to make an extra effort to try to ensure that the people I come into contact with, even if we are in a dispute, are shown the respect and dignity that I believe all people are entitled to.
4.) Comparing ourselves to others is foolish and toxic – The truth is, in most cases, we don’t really know much about the intimate lives of other people. The family that often appears to be doing financially well and achieving great success may well be on the brink of total collapse. Trying to keep up with our image of other people’s lives can bankrupt us monetarily and emotionally. I remember one lesson about litigating cases that I learned from an experienced trial lawyer when I was just starting out. She told me, don’t worry about what the other side is or isn’t doing during a trial, focus on what you need to do for your client, if you continuously respond to what they do, you’ll never get around to putting on your client’s case. I found this was great advice both in and out of the courtroom. I try to keep my focus on my own work, my life, and the things that I can control. I remind myself frequently, what others are doing is rarely any of my business or concern. It’s much better to create and tell our own story than to try to duplicate the life of another.
5.) Beware of righteous anger – We live in a world where other people sometimes cause us harm either intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes we are left with wounds and hurts from the actions of others and anger is a very understandable and natural response. It’s very tempting to want to inflict upon the other person the same or great harm and suffering, believing that this will resolve our anger. However, I have rarely seen where punishing the other person does much to resolve anger or hurts. Righteous anger can impair our ability think rationally and result in our harming ourselves and others. I recall an instance when I was representing clients in delinquency court where a man who was being victimized by teenagers stealing his mail from his mailbox came into Court seeking restitution for having purchased a firearm and asking for payment for the hours he sat in the window of his home with the weapon watching the mailbox with the intention of shooting the children who were stealing his mail. Granted, the teenagers were causing him significant harm through what they saw as a prank, but his desire to shoot them was completely out of proportion. Fortunately, he never got the opportunity to use his gun and to suffer the regret and severe legal consequences that I strongly suspect would have occurred. It can be very difficult to let go of hurt and anger, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to live the best possible life going forward.