I’ve spent a great deal of time writing in the negative. That is, much of the content so far has been about what a Stoic should not do or what a Stoic should consider unimportant. That might leave the reader with the idea that Stoicism presents only a set of restrictions and encourages a disconnection with the goals that move a person to be productive. To lawyers—who are acutely aware of the restrictions placed on the by general laws and regulations and the additional demands of court rules, best practices, and professional conduct rules—the idea of further self-imposed restrictions might be especially unattractive. And to many lawyers, whether they are trying to travel the partnership road at a large firm, ascend to leadership in an organization, or build their own book of business, being goal- or success-oriented is a necessary way of life.
Considering that, its time to write directly about how the practice of Stoicism can assist the practice of law. This week, I’ll discuss how Wisdom can liberate a lawyer from some of common concerns and help a lawyer focus on developing goals that will foster professional success.
First, we must remember that the essence of Wisdom to a Stoic is recognizing what is Good, Bad, or indifferent. Second, it is helpful to think of Epictetus‘ division of things between what is up to us and what is not up to us. As translated by Elizabeth Carter, Arrian recorded that Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Notice that the first category of things are items where the proper approach leads to virtue; the second category of things are all indifferent–they do not aid or harm the search for virtue.
As it applies to a lawyer, Epictetus’ analysis helps define priorities. Given the choice, it is more reasonable to concentrate on those things over which one has control than on those things over which one does not have control. To the Stoic Lawyer, it is imperative to spend time taking the right approach to those things which can lead one to developing virtue and the attitude of the Sage. Applying Epictetus’ categories to those things which are important to lawyers, we can see what priorities the Wise Lawyer would attempt to establish.
Things in our control — Epictetus defined this category to be composed of one’s own actions. As it applies to lawyers, this category includes the lawyer’s composure, her treatment of clients, opponents, employees, and third parties, how the lawyer maintains the confidences of clients, how the lawyer manages his office, and how the lawyer acts to uphold her duties of competence and diligence.
Things not in our control — This category is composed of things other than one’s own actions. As it applies to lawyers, this category includes the results the lawyer obtains for his clients, her income and reputation, the success of marketing strategies, attaining partnership, and being the subject of attorney discipline or malpractice actions.
Comparing these, Epictetus’ advice is very instructive to the Wise lawyer. That lawyer, who has learned to differentiate between that which is Good, Bad, and indifferent and who has learned to determine what is in her control has the power to choose to focus on those things which tend toward virtue and which are in her control. She will not stress herself out over whether she will prevail for her client or close a deal, whether she will obtain money or fame, or whether her client will make a complaint against her. She will recognize that those things are all in the control of others, for example a jury, opponent, or the client. Instead, the Wise lawyer will concentrate her energies on those things which are in her control. She will remember to present her best arguments in the order she intended, to return calls from clients, to treat opponents with respect, to monitor and avoid conflicts of interest or the disclosure of client confidences, to reconcile her trust account on a regular basis, and to pay close attention to developing her skills and professional contacts.
As you may have already considered, by concentrating on those things in her control, the Wise lawyer may also increase her odds of affecting those things not in her control. Juries will not be distracted by unprofessionalism, opponents and third parties will be more receptive to her arguments and proposals, clients will feel well-represented and will be more likely to pay on time and refrain from making disciplinary or malpractice complaints. The Wise lawyer likely will also develop a network of referral sources and colleagues who feel a genuine connection and respect for her. Her reputation in the community will be that of a lawyer who does both well and good. As an additional benefit, this lawyer will not be driven into unprofessional conduct by seeking money or results at the expense of her professional integrity.
This is not to say, of course, that the Wise lawyer will be always met with resounding professional and financial success. Obviously, Fate or the actions of others may intervene. However, the Wise lawyer will keep in mind the advice of Cleanthes, as related by F.G. Sandbach in “The Stoics“:
“What brings happiness is to have the right attitude, to choose the right actions, to aim correctly at the mark. This is in the man’s own power; success, in the popular meaning of the word, is not. Unforeseen and incalculable causes may prevent his hitting the target, his actions may be obstructed, his attitude disregarded; but so long as he does all he can and has nothing with which to reproach himself, all is well with him… [F]or a strong character it is a welcome challenge to be told that he must rely upon himself and that self-reliance is the road to happiness. ” 36-37.