I’ve mentioned before that the Stoics saw great value in performing one’s role in life to the best of one’s ability. In seeking to do that, I often contemplate what it means for me to be a good lawyer. There are almost as many opinions on this subject as there are lawyers (especially because where lawyers fail to differ, clients will be happy to make their thoughts known). It is also a matter addressed by innumerable legal bloggers, usually while trying to sell their consulting services or advertise their approach to prospective clients. In that, I don’t imagine I’ll appear much different or more valuable, but I feel compelled to publish my thoughts.
But it is a thing I spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve been studying the different thoughts and approaches as I’ve been working for a court, taking advantage of the luxury I’ve had to be able to sit and watch other lawyers without having clients of my own. One thing I’ve watched with particular interest is the ABAJournal.com series, The New Normal. I feel that a recent post by Paul Lippe offered a succinct metaphor for the New Normal approach and the model from which the New Normal seeks to distinguish itself. In the article, Mr. Lippe used two hypothetical doctors to illustrate the two approaches:
“Brenda Brain Surgeon is the chief of Neurosurgery at Mass General Hospital. Brenda has nimble hands, deep insight, and a calm demeanor. She excelled through four years of medical school, six years of residency, and four years of fellowships at top programs. When she operates, the room is silent, the patient sedated, and younger doctors and operating room nurses hover at her beck and call. She has a waiting list of patients, and makes $1,500,000/year. Many (but not all) of her patients do well after surgery.
Victor VHA Chief Medical Officer is the senior physician for the Veterans Health Administration Medical system, one of the largest medical delivery systems in the world. Victor is responsible for overall policy-setting for tens of millions of veterans and their families. The VHA is a leader in both outcomes research and electronic medical records, and is rated more favorably than other health care providers who spend more per patient. Victor has to worry about training and retaining doctors and nurses among the VHA’s 240,000 employees, setting care guidelines, trading off costs within his $47 billion budget and making sure patients take the meds they are prescribed and don’t do things to make their health worse. He has brain surgeons (none perhaps quite as individually skilled as Brenda) working for the VHA, but he can’t afford to have them operate in all the scenarios Brenda would. Victor makes $250,000/year, and has a good pension.”
To Mr. Lippe, Brenda was the model of the dominant professional ideal. But he argued that Victor was the model for what lawyers need to become to remain relevant to clients. Stating that we are entering “The Age of Operational Law,” he argued that clients are seeking lawyers who provide systemic, operational services and not targeted, judgment-centric troubleshooting services. He argued that the operational lawyers provide the most value by adjusting and directing the management of entire systems, instead of offering only high-cost, high-stakes advice on individual situations.
Reading the article, it struck me that both models are equally irrelevant to me as I enter private practice. I’m heading into a small practice focusing on working- and middle-class individuals and their businesses. To give some indication of what my potential clients are facing, I’m joining my wife’s bankruptcy practice. These are hard-working people facing some of the toughest situations they’ve ever encountered. I hope to protect them and help them rebuild after my partner helps them obtain a fresh start. These aren’t people who need (or who can afford) the best surgeon in the region. They also don’t need (and wouldn’t appreciate) an outsider to step up to take over their lives and make their mundane decisions. They aren’t in need of life-saving surgical intervention or a person to run their day-to-day lives; they need a knowledgable, regularly-accessible person who knows them well, who can prescribe an acceptable course of action for treating their ordinary acute needs, and who knows when to refer the matter to a specialist. They aren’t looking for Brenda Brain-Surgeon or Victor VHA Chief Medical Officer–they are looking for Patty PrimaryCare.
In the style of the other doctors, I’d describe Patty like this:
Patty PrimaryCare is one of two doctors in a neighborhood clinic. Patty has a wide comprehension of the illnesses generally contracted by people in her area and the most commonly effective treatments for those conditions. She has also developed a refined sense of when something is beyond her skill to treat. Her clinic is not widely known, but it is well-regarded by her patients and colleagues, who know they can trust Patty to keep appointments, spend the necessary time to make the right diagnosis, and remember what treatments will give her patients an allergic reaction. Patty often has several patients she is treating at the same time for different conditions; one of her most important skills is treating each patient as an individual. Patty prides herself on knowing the smaller details of her patient’s lives. She knows their personal history, living situation, and when they change careers, and recognizes them and their family members when she encounters them in the community. Patty’s income varies; there are bills she sometimes struggles to pay, but she considers herself fortunate to be doing real good and practicing in the field she’s always dreamed of.
That’s the kind of lawyer I want to be. I think its the kind of lawyer that exists a lot of places and goes uncelebrated. Lawyers like that don’t appear on TV or in movies, except as background characters, but they provide vital services to ordinary people every day. Sometimes they don’t get their clients everything they hoped, sometimes they can’t collect on all of their outstanding billables, but they keep practicing because they love what they do and know that it matters. They don’t need to be famous, they’re happy to honestly and responsibly fulfill the role they’re fated to play.
And because of all of that, they might be the perfect models for the Stoic lawyer.
One of my LinkedIn connections recently posted a link to Positive Thinking: Avoid 5 Toxic Beliefs That Ruin Careers | Inc.com. Reading the article, I realized that some of the problems in the article were problems the ancient Stoics had considered and addressed. Considering the way the original article is likely making the internet rounds, I thought it worthwhile to consider the Stoic approach to these problems.
“1. My self-worth is based on what others think of me.”
As Geoffrey James (author of the Sales Source blog linked above) pointed out, criticism from bosses, co-workers, and customers can be disheartening and have the tendency to demotivate people by undercutting their self-esteem. The Stoic writers recommended dealing with this problem in two ways.
First, the Stoics advised that a person should view himself realistically. Every person, unless a sage, remains fallible and foolish to some degree. Some Stoics believed that every person who wasn’t a sage (in other words, a person who hadn’t become perfectly wise) was equally foolish; after all, a person who is an inch under water is drowning just as certainly as a person who is three feet under water. That concept had two consequences. First, the Stoics believed that a person should be open to improvement. Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” Meditations, Book 6. Second, the Stoics recommended a person should keep a sense of humor about himself. For example, Epictetus recommended, “if anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.'” Enchiridion, 33.
Second, the Stoics recommended concentrating on what matters and what is in a person’s control. For example, if someone insults a person with little hair for being bald, why should the person take offense? It is merely a statement of fact–a circumstance of fate over which hurt feelings would be unreasonable. Seneca, On Firmness, XVI.4. Similarly, a Stoic should consider the source of an insult. If a person who is not pursuing a life of virtue criticizes a philosopher, it is entirely possible the person is too ignorant or wrongheaded for the opinion to matter to the philosopher. Finally, and most powerfully, the Stoics recommended taking insults as a reminder to attempt to be better and let the hatred or jealousy of the insulter remain a problem for that other person. As Marcus wrote, “Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt. Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.” Meditations, Book 11
“2. My past equals my future.”
This sentiment reflects the despair that a person can experience when confronted with hardship. I addressed this possibility in a previous post on Courage. In that post, I discussed the Stoic idea that hardship can be met by carefully considering whether the hardship is itself Bad or merely indifferent and by focusing on the pursuit of virtue instead of being distracted by temporary setbacks.
Seneca offered another angle of attack on this problem. In his essay On Providence, Seneca took a theistic approach. Considering that the Stoics believed that the circumstances of their life were caused by the rules and actions set out by God or Fate, Seneca wrote about what it might mean that a particular person seemed to experience more than her fair share of abuse. He put it in terms of a training program; a person tested by adversity would have more of a chance to build resilience and more occasions to truly test her virtue. These quotes are illustrative:
Why is it that God afflicts the best men with ill health, or sorrow, or some other misfortune? For the same reason that in the army the bravest men are assigned to the hazardous tasks; it is the picked soldier that a general sends to surprise the enemy by a night attack, or to reconnoitre the road, or to dislodge a garrison. Not a man of these will say as he goes, “My commander has done me an ill turn,” but instead, “He has paid me a compliment.” In like manner, all those who are called to suffer what would make cowards and poltroons weep may say, “God has deemed us worthy instruments of his purpose to discover how much human nature can endure.” Seneca, On Providence
If we are lashed and torn by Fortune, let us bear it; it is not cruelty but a struggle, and the oftener we engage in it, the stronger we shall be. The staunchest member of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We should offer ourselves to Fortune in order that, struggling with her, we may be hardened by her. Gradually she will make us a match for herself. Familiarity with exposure to danger will give contempt for danger. So the bodies of sailors are hardy from buffeting the sea, the hands of farmers are callous, the soldier’s muscles have the strength to hurl weapons, and the legs of a runner are nimble. In each, his staunchest member is the one that he has exercised. By enduring ills the mind attains contempt for the endurance of them; you will know what this can accomplish in our own case, if you will observe how much the peoples that are destitute and, by reason of their want, more sturdy, secure by toil. Id.
“3. My destiny is controlled by the supernatural.”
The Sales Source article suggests dismissing all thought that a supernatural source controls what will happen to a person, good or bad. The reasoning is that a person is made complacent and will waste time waiting for his luck to change or for the Universe to turn his way. This is a point upon which the Stoics would disagree.
The Stoics did hold that events were fated and that there was only one way that history might unfold. Despite that, Stoics still believed in the pursuit of virtue. Even more than that, it is evident from the litany of well-known Stoics that they did not let a belief in Fate keep them from striving. Chrysippius was well-known as a prodigious writer and thinker, Seneca was accomplished in the realms of literature, politics, and finance, Epictetus built a reputation as a teacher even after being exiled, and Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations as he actively took up the responsibilities of a Roman Emperor.
The reason for that is that Stoics did not allow the existence of Fate or God eliminate personal responsibility. Epictetus said, “Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.” Enchiridion, 17. Although the path of one’s life isn’t entirely within one’s own control, the Stoics firmly believed that a person should make the most of that life. In one of the most common examples, various writers noted that no person can escape the fate of death, but every person can choose to act so that they do not waste the time allotted to them before the moment of death comes.
Marcus Aurelius put it a little differently. In Book 12 of the Meditations, Marcus remarked that, if there is a providential God, a person should act to make herself worthy of the benefits bestowed, and if there is no God, a person should remain at least true to improving one’s own character and actions, for all other things can be swept away by circumstance or the actions of others. Meditations, Book 12, Para. 16.
“4. My emotions accurately reflect objective reality.”
It would almost be redundant to address this point. The flaw of thinking that one’s emotions are a reflection of the objective value of events instead of merely a reflection of one’s opinion about those events is at the heart of Stoic thought. A large portion of Stoic training is to learn to take a thing according to its appearance without the filter of emotion. Doing that is the practical aspect of distinguishing between what is Good, Bad, or indifferent; it is the practice of Wisdom.
Marcus Aurelius wrote frequently on this point. The following are some examples:
Seventh, that it is not men’s acts which disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men’s ruling principles, but it is our own opinions which disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss thy judgement about an act as if it were something grievous, and thy anger is gone. Book 11
Eighth, consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed. Id.
Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. Book 4
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost thou not rather act than complain?- But some insuperable obstacle is in the way?- Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on thee.- But it is not worth while to live if this cannot be done.- Take thy departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased too with the things which are obstacles. Book 8
“5. My goal is to be perfect or do something perfectly.”
The Sales Source article counseled avoiding perfectionism. The Stoics, on the other hand, had to confront the fact that they hoped to develop their virtue and train their wisdom to the point where they would become a Sage. The Stoic ideal of the Sage was of an infallible person with perfect virtue and perfect wisdom. A Sage was considered to be the only truly happy individual.
It is worth noting that no Stoic writer ever claimed to be a Sage and there is no historical individual who was considered by any great number of the Stoics to have been a Sage. So Stoics approached the goal of attaining something very like perfection with the thought that perfection had never yet been attained by anyone. This set their expectations in a different place. The value that became important was not perfection, but striving.
Different Stoics approached this from slightly different angles. Seneca reasoned that even the perfect Sage should consider that there are forces in the Universe which exceed his own power. Therefore, he said, “The wise man comes to everything with the proviso ‘if nothing happens to prevent it’; therefore we say that he succeeds in everything and nothing happens contrary to his expectation, because he presupposes that something can intervene to prevent his design.”
Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, took failure as inevitable, believing that people (or at least he himself) were not formed by Nature to attain perfect reason. For his part, Marcus counseled that failure was an opportunity to rededicate oneself to the goal of living in accordance with Nature and to recommit to one’s principles. He wrote, “Be not disgusted, nor discouraged, nor dissatisfied, if thou dost not succeed in doing everything according to right principles; but when thou bast failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what thou doest is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which thou returnest; and do not return to philosophy as if she were a master, but act like those who have sore eyes and apply a bit of sponge and egg, or as another applies a plaster, or drenching with water. For thus thou wilt not fail to obey reason, and thou wilt repose in it. And remember that philosophy requires only the things which thy nature requires; but thou wouldst have something else which is not according to nature.” Meditations, Book 5.
These five career-killing thoughts are ones that have plagued people for generations. Stoic thought offers some approaches which have been found helpful over the years. Although these techniques and answers may not satisfy all, they are at least better than the mere suggestion to avoid thinking these things.