Every year about Holiday time (being a Christian it is Christmas for me), I become very contemplative about a lot of things: the meaning of the season, commercialization, poverty, homelessness, the aging population, apathy, world unrest, and greed. Somehow that doesn’t tee up a very uplifting blog post about lawyers and how they play into the seasonal festivities. I’ll tie all that in later (I hope) but first I want to talk about history.
I don’t remember when I started thinking about all the world’s ills at the holidays, but it was sometime in the late 1970s. I remember visiting with a life insurance agent (Catholic by faith) and lamenting that I really hated this time of year because of its gross commercialization. We talked a while and I don’t even remember so it couldn’t be all that important. Real point of the story came two days later when I got a Christmas card from him. Again, I don’t remember the sentiment, but I do remember what he wrote—a few simple words—“remember the reason for the season.” I remember it for two reasons, first it got me thinking about why we celebrate the season and second, he won’t let me forget—he writes the same thing in a card he sends me every year at Holiday time, including this year. This message must be important to him because he is getting very old and has very advanced macular degeneration. It has become my most important remembrance of the season as he reminds me what giving really means. After all these years it is still important for him to remember a young man who seemed rather grinchy some forty years ago. I think it’s his way of making sure that each year I focus on the important things of the season.
I still contemplate all the world's troubles, but my friend shifted my focus from “bah humbug” to “my what a world of opportunities we have to make a difference.” After all, regardless of your faith, the season is one of renewal and celebration and while the commercialization remains at an all-time high, it does give us the opportunity to share with our loved ones and more importantly with people we don’t even know. Everywhere we turn we see a “giving tree,” a Salvation Army Bell Ringer, or a “toys for tots” drop box. The chance to give of ourselves without recognition abounds. Beyond the commercial giving I see a different need, the need for lawyers to take a little time to contemplate what part they play or can play in the process of renewal and helping the less fortunate.
From my perspective lawyers don’t like each other very much. Okay, so that is a gross over generalization, but it makes the point that we don’t take the time we used to when we would have lunch together sitting around a big table with a judge once in a while and a group of lawyers that would change from day to day. When we attend local Bar meetings, attendance is relatively low unless the program produces a CLE credit and even then we sit with folks we don't know. We used to talk more on the phone or in person about legal matters; today we either email or text. It’s much easier to be tough on a point if you don’t have to look someone in the eye or hear the tone of their voice. Have you ever noticed how terse an email sounds when we don’t take the time to add a salutation or a “Sincerely” at the end? It’s the little stuff that has changed the way we interact and it’s the little stuff that can change it again. As you think about your own interaction with other lawyers, even the ones you don’t like very much, try to change the tone of the dialogue, even if it only goes one way. You may just find that you will enjoy the practice a little more. You might even find that the stress reduction and attitude change may even allow you to be a little nicer to yourself along the way.
Lawyers give back to their communities, and the opportunities abound, but we wind up on not-for-profit boards, civic boards and in service clubs. We don’t see the opportunities to make a difference one person at a time. Today we have organized and staffed legal services entities, we have poorly staffed public defenders offices and even organized aging services entities. A lawyer in most jurisdictions will need to go out of his or her way to get appointed to an indigent criminal case, or a pro bono domestic matter. I know; why would anybody in their right mind want to get such an appointment? I’ll tell you why, it feels good and it make us all better lawyers when we do. Let us not forget that as officers of the court we owe a duty to the efficient and expedient administration of both civil and criminal justice. As the court appointments slipped away a number of years ago, I like most of us tended to “buy my salvation” by making donations to the Montana Justice Foundation (I still do support MJF). A few years ago the public defender system in our county took a nose dive and I found myself with a court appointment for a young man (barely 18) who found himself charged with a Misdemeanor and a Felony for a matter that should have been a civil matter related to damage to a vehicle. The long and the short of it, I found myself really enjoying making this matter lessen to a deferred imposition of sentence and ultimately (two years later) getting a complete dismissal. I spent more time than a PD could have and worked angles that a PD couldn’t because of case loads. In the end the young man graduated from college and is gainfully employed. I don’t tell this story because I did anything particularly great or unusual, but rather to point out that lawyers today miss an opportunity to really make a difference in some people’s lives that can really bring a lot of joy to both the lawyer and the client. What we do often seems ministerial, repetitious and unfulfilling because sometimes it is.
On the civil side of giving you have a greater opportunity simply because of volume. I attended a court motion calendar the other day and could not believe the number of people appearing pro se. It seems we have a legal self-help clinic that helps with forms for those that can’t afford an attorney. Attorneys even volunteer every day to assist with the preparation of the forms so the court can, at least, have the right documentation in front of them when the person appears. The problem; the judge has to be both the inquisitor and the trier of facts put on the record. I noted that day that it took the judge at least twice as long to handle that matter as it did when counsel appears. What if lawyers could volunteer to just appear and be counsel for the limited purpose of getting the right facts on the record? I look at it as sort of a hospitalist approach to legal representation. I can think of any number of ways we can make a difference. Elder Law is becoming a big deal, but something as simple as reviewing a will for a senior citizen and telling them it looks great can create peace of mind. Even if it took a little redrafting or updating, it’s pretty simple and can make a huge difference in the life of another human being.
My point in all this at the holiday season—give of yourself in a way that really makes you feel renewed rather than burdened. Find a way to put joy into the season by reducing the inevitable periodic stress and dread throughout the year by getting involved in the system that doesn’t require sending a bill or writing a check. Pay it forward for all the blessings that we as lawyers have received over the years. A little time working with people that really appreciate the help can go a long way to restoring one's faith in themselves and bringing honor to a profession that we all hold dear.
Happy Holidays to all my loyal readers who put up with my sometimes just plain strange blog post. Your readership has made the process exciting and fulfilling for me and in this season of renewal I am both grateful and humbled. No commercial plug this time; those of you that want to comment or ask a question, I suspect you know where to find me.