HUMILITY, RELATIONSHIP-BUILDING AND CAREER SATISFACTION
Humility is something not ordinarily associated with lawyers, but it should be. The few lawyers who possess true humility – the ones who are the least self-aggrandizing and the most willing to sacrifice their egos to assist others - are the most highly respected, have the largest social networks and have the highest degree of career satisfaction. This fact may seem counter-intuitive. Most lawyers automatically recoil when they hear the word “humility,” because they confuse it with being timid, lacking in self-confidence and allowing oneself to be degraded or stepped on. These lawyers are confusing humility, with something negative. They haven’t discovered that humility is a virtue found in happy people who attract the friendship and loyalty of others and who positively influence the people around them.
Being humble doesn’t require you to be servile or make yourself a doormat. Gary Chapman, author of Love as a Way of Life, says being humble means being secure in who you are, being thankful for the gifts and talents you have received and affirming your own value without exaggerating your accomplishments or diminishing those of others. The humble person feels no need to puff himself up, because he understands he is “just as valuable, and just as weak, as the people he is called” to serve.
Most of us will be nice, polite and helpful to others if that’s how they act towards us. We like people who like us and treat us well. But most people will feel threatened by and react in a defensive, angry way toward people who oppose or criticize them. The humble person is not influenced significantly by how other people behave. Whether people appreciate and applaud him or oppose and criticize him, the humble person retains his equanimity. He understands that all people are on different paths and see things differently. He also understands that all people have inherent value, including him.
Humility is recognizing that no one is better than you, yet no one is worse than you either. Chapman says humility is the desire “to be all we were created to be, nothing more, and nothing less.” Humility means allowing others to be who they are without putting yourself on a high throne, looking down upon them and judging them failures because they don’t meet your definition of success. Self-degradation and other-degradation are both inconsistent with humility. Self-degradation is inconsistent because it involves seeing oneself as less worthy and less valuable than others, putting oneself down and stunting the development of one’s own gifts and talents. Other-degradation is inconsistent because it involves seeing others as valueless, putting them down and spurning the gifts they have to offer.
Other-degradation, consisting of acts of unprofessionalism, has become intolerably common these days in law practice. Deposition transcripts have been published on the Internet, in scholarly articles and in textbooks to show lawyers how not to speak to each other. In 1998 Jean M. Cary, a Professor of Law at Campbell University and frequent lecturer for NITA, published an article titled Teaching Ethics and Professionalism in Litigation: Some Thoughts. In her article Prof. Cary cites deposition transcripts in which lawyers called each other a “lying son-of-a- bitch,” a “fat slob,” an “asshole,” a “cocksucker,” a “scummy and slimy….. little man,” a person with a “foul, odorous body” a “sheeny Hebrew” and “a fucking cunt.” She also cites physical abuse during court proceedings including one lawyer punching out another lawyer, and one lawyer throwing the contents of a soda cup in another lawyer’s face and putting him in a headlock.
Allen J. Welch wrote an article for the Oklahoma Bar Association titled Ethics & Professional Responsibility: Ethical Issues Regarding Discovery. In this piece he quotes from a deposition transcript in which superlawyer Joe Jamail says the following to opposing counsel who Jamail believes is coaching his witness: “Don’t Joe me, asshole. You can ask some questions, but get off of that. I’m tired of you. You could gag a maggot off a meat wagon.”
Why would lawyers stray so far across the line separating civility from incivility that they curse at one another and insult each other’s bodily appearance, hygiene, gender or religion? Chapman says that humility is recognizing the value of others. In these instances it’s clear that some lawyers have seen opposing counsel as valueless. This loss of humility is not just a source of pain to the person treated as valueless, but to the bystanders who witness the event; to the colleagues, family and friends of the person who was attacked; and to the legal profession as a whole.
Verbal abuse that stems from lack of humility can lead to serious bar discipline including suspension or even disbarment. On January 4, 2010 a high profile criminal defense lawyer named Kevin Murphy admitted to verbally abusing witnesses and making unfounded accusations of prosecutorial misconduct while defending Julia Elliot from murder charges in a court in Eastern Ontario, Canada. At the penalty hearing Murphy was fined $10,000 and suspended from practice for six months. TheStar.com reported that Vern Krishna of the Law Society of Upper Canada told Murphy, “You ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourself.”
There is a huge benefit to recognizing the value of others that goes way beyond avoiding the sort of name calling which can get you in trouble with the State Bar. Chapman says that when you perceive the value of others you’re more inclined to see others as potential friends and cooperate with them. You’re also less inclined to engage in cutthroat competition with them for status, approval, credit for achievement or simple things like a place in the check out line at the grocery store or a parking spot. Humility is the foundation of human relationships.
Human beings are wired by evolution to be happy in relationships. Only when we relate well to each other can we live well. Verbally shredding other lawyers may make you feel powerful for a moment, but has a serious downside. By failing to restrain your petulant rage and letting the verbal bullets fly, you’re extinguishing the potential to have the friendship, respect, loyalty and support of other lawyers. If you’re going to have a long, satisfying career it’s hard to imagine doing so without these.
Those who achieve the most brag the least. A humble boss readily shares accolades with other managers and employees when his organization meets or exceeds an important goal. He celebrates their triumphs while de-emphasizing his own so as not to draw all the attention to himself and away from the organization. In Good to Great Jim Collins demonstrates that the most profitable companies in the country, the ones with returns which were consistently much higher than the stock market over a fifteen year period, were all run by humble leaders.
These leaders directed their egos away from themselves and to the larger goal of making their companies great. They spent their time building rapport with employees and customers rather than tooting their own horn. They treated everyone with respect. They quietly focused on sound business principles rather than trying highly risky strategies to get themselves maximum public attention. They shunned publicity and did not gloat when their companies did well. They kept focusing on making their companies even better.
At the core of humility is the desire to build relationships and the decision that good relationships with other people matter more than being first or being right. Humility, says Chapman, is “a way to experience the joy of loving others.” A humble person is not prideful or selfish. He won’t fall into a state of envy, anger and turmoil when a sibling, friend or co-worker succeeds at something he wants to do. A humble person is pleased not only when he succeeds, but when another person succeeds too.
A humble person is fine with another person being right, getting recognition and approval or having a moment in the limelight for a worthy accomplishment. He will not “lose it” when someone else stands out and he is able to step out of the way to let others get the attention they deserve. A humble person does not stew in his own juices when someone else succeeds, because of a childish desire to be “bigger and better” than everyone else.
The ability to be pleased at the success of others provides a remarkable degree of inner peace. How? It avoids feelings of anger, resentment and blame when others succeed. It frees you from having to expend huge amounts of energy to look good and prove that you’re better than others. A humble person is glad being who he is. He doesn’t compare himself to others and find value only in being first or best according to some external rating scale. Along with inner peace goes the outer peace of avoiding conflict with others based on pride. A humble person need not alienate and fight with others to show them he’s top dog. He feels no impulse to step over them, steal credit for the work they contributed to his group or insult their work to make his work look better. Imagine how humility could transform your law firm and ease the competitive friction which may now exist between some of your partners and associates.
Chapman says humble people live well because they reject the “Go-for-it” mentality so common in today’s culture which pushes us to grab everything we can at the expense of relationships. The father who works at the law office all week and is away from home every weekend to play golf, ski or bicycle with his buddies is grabbing the gusto, but he isn’t putting anything into his relationship with his children. Eventually his children will experience feelings of anger, rejection and indifference towards him and he will lose his relationships with them.
Humble people feel good because they invest time and energy in their relationships with others. They do this not to get something in return, but to reap the joy that comes from fostering the wellbeing of others. They are repaid in the form of friendship and in social support when they need company, validation, advice, encouragement or comfort.
Humble people are free from pride and feel at peace. They feel no need to conceal their weaknesses or refuse help from others when they really need it. Chapman mentions the time in 2007 when film critic Roger Ebert was urged by his fans to stay away from a film festival because post-jaw-cancer-surgery he looked awful with a drooping mouth and a huge bandage around his neck that would attract the tabloids. Ebert knew he didn’t look his best but didn’t want to hide his illness at the cost of missing something really important to him, a chance to mingle and speak with his friends in the industry. He showed up and communicated through notes. Other people with cancer were moved and inspired by his refusal to hide his illness.
One example of asking for help is AA. This organization has helped more than two million people become sober. It is incredibly successful because it is based on humility. AA requires the public sharing of weakness, the recognition that self-reliance has failed and the inner decision to call upon a Higher Power and one’s AA group for help.
Chapman tells us that Bill W., the legendary founder of AA, struggled with wanting recognition for his own achievements and wanting to remain as humble as the Twelve Steps of AA required him to be. In the end Bill W. won the struggle to remain humble and AA flourished as a result. Instead of racing around the country accepting the many individual honors being offered to him, something that would have caused resentment within AA leadership and cut way into Bill’s time to help run AA, he declined them all. AA embraced Bill W. all the more because the other leaders knew how hard it was for him to reject public honors, and this clearly proved his heart belonged to AA not to his own ambition.
To sacrifice one’s ego for the good of others, an essential part of humility, is not weakness but strength. No organization can succeed and no marriage can remain happy without humility. People have to be willing to let others have their way or let others be right some of the time to preserve a quality relationship. Whoever insists on always having things his way and on always being right is not humble, and will find himself in constant conflict with others. Chapman says, “This is the joy of true humility: loving others so much that our desire for their affirmation is greater than any selfish ambition.”
Regarding the sharing of weakness, Chapman mentions a situation in 1783 just before the American Revolutionary Army disbanded. Officers in Newburgh, New York, were very angry over not being paid their back wages and were on the verge of trying to take over the fledgling national government to get their money. George Washington called a meeting. The officers were worked up. They were rude and disrespectful. After telling them the nation’s finances were in poor shape, George Washington pulled a letter from his pocket indicating the Second Continental Congress was trying to raise the money and needed more time.
Before reading the letter Washington took some time to put on his reading glasses. He looked at the officers and told them, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers who had followed him for the past eight and a half years were reminded that Washington had suffered as much or more than they had in the same cause, and they were deeply moved. They reaffirmed their loyalty to Washington and their country and the crisis was averted. Chapman uses this as a teaching example to show that while pride alienates others, humility moves itself into their hearts.
Leaders don’t always have all the answers, and they’re better off seeking help than pretending there is nothing they can’t do. Chapman uses Lewis and Clarke as an example of how humility confers benefits when it enables us to ask for help. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson asked his trusted assistant Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to chart the Western region of the country. He was given the rank of Captain and put in sole charge of the expedition. Given the extremely challenging nature of the four thousand mile wilderness trek, Lewis wanted help from his good friend William Clark to co-lead the expedition. Without authority he promised Clark he would get him approved as a Captain. He tried his best, but the War Department would only make Clark a second-in-command Lieutenant.
While many people in Lewis’s shoes would want to be looked upon by his men and remembered by history as the sole leader of the famous mapping expedition, Lewis took a different, more humble tack. He told Clark to keep his real rank a secret from the men of the mapping party who all viewed him as a Captain and an equal co-leader. Clark accepted and because of this act of true friendship history remembers the expedition of Captain Lewis and Captain Clark, not the Lewis expedition. Doing it Lewis’s way endeared Clark to him and raised the level of the men’s respect for Clark in a way that never would have happened if he kept Clark second in command. It may well have been an essential ingredient in making the expedition as successful as it turned out.
Each day lawyers have opportunities to act out of selfishness (what can I get out of you?) or to act out of humility and concern for others. A very interesting example of the balance between selfishness and humility concerns California lawyer Francis T. Fahy. In March 2004 Fahy was selected as a juror in a medical malpractice case which lasted one month. After ten days of deliberations the jury was deadlocked, but the judge insisted they keep deliberating. Fahy allegedly told his fellow jurors that if the judge did not declare a mistrial, he would have to change his vote from liability to no liability for the doctor because he couldn’t afford to stay away from his office any longer. The jury foreman alerted the judge to what Fahy said, but after interviewing each juror the judge found nothing improper. Fahy changed his vote and a verdict was entered for the defense.
Prior to entry of judgment, Fahy supposedly signed a declaration regarding the change in his vote. The reports of the situation I read did not contain the declaration or the wording of the declaration, but when the trial was over the plaintiff’s lawyer moved for a new trial alleging jury misconduct by Fahy based upon Fahy’s declaration. The California State Bar sought Fahy’s disbarment for prematurely ending jury deliberations for his personal business reasons. It charged Fahy with illegal activity, failure to show due respect for the courts and moral turpitude. At his State Bar Court trial Fahy denied the signature was his and asserted it was forged. According to Mike McKee, author a blog called Legal Pad, Fahy later signed a second declaration admitting the signature on the first declaration of 2004 was genuine. In July 2009 the State Bar Court ordered Fahy disbarred.
What’s the lesson here aside the fact that serious misconduct as a juror can get a lawyer disbarred? It has to do with humility. Fahy agreed to sacrifice his economic interests when he agreed to give his time for as long as it took to fairly adjudicate the rights of two strangers based upon the evidence they presented in their trial. But after a month of trial and ten days of jury deliberations, Fahy made a choice to put his economic interests above the legal rights of the injured plaintiff (whom he believed on the evidence had been wronged) and above the integrity of the legal system as a process for doing justice. In doing so he caused grave harm to the plaintiff and himself.
I certainly empathize with Fahy. Being away from his law practice for that long must have put him under great psychological, professional and business pressures and made him fear that further delay could case him to jeopardize the outcome of his existing cases and induce existing clients to fire him. What’s important here is that none of us lose sight of the importance of our relationships with our fellow human beings. There’s always going to be a reason to sink someone else’s head under water so we can float.
In the Elliot murder case I’m sure defense counsel Murphy was personally convinced his client was innocent and it was his job to see that she was acquitted. But this did not justify his outrageous verbal abuse of other people (various witnesses) or making up unfounded statements to the jury about how the prosecution was framing his client. Likewise, wanting to win your client’s case does not mean it’s okay to call opposing counsel a “fat slob,” a “cocksucker,” or a “fucking cunt” when they block your way to victory. Humility means seeing all people have value and treating them as if they did.
The lawyers who have humility prosper financially and socially by putting others first. They recognize that giving freely of their time and energy to benefit others will increase their career and life satisfaction. Here are two examples of lawyers with humility. Both of them are very bright, articulate and capable professionals, who could have spent all their time making money, but they chose to devote substantial amounts of their time and energy to help others, and both succeeded in making the world a better place.
Every year the Ninth Circuit awards its highest accolade, the John P. Frank Award, to recognize an outstanding lawyer practicing in the federal courts of the western United States. The 2005 recipient was San Francisco lawyer Jerome “Jerry” Braun of Farella, Braun & Martel. Braun handled trials and appeals in complex commercial litigation, securities regulation, antitrust and legal malpractice. He served as an arbitrator, mediator and as a special master for the federal courts. Braun authored many articles on the appellate process in professional and scholarly journals and taught at San Francisco Law School and Stanford University School of Law. At Stanford he helped establish the John Samuel Abramson Scholarship Endowment for minority students and the Judge Robert F. Peckham Scholarship Fund.
Braun was President of the Ninth Circuit Historical Society where he raised most of the funds for the youth-directed biography of Cecil Poole titled A Life in the Law. Poole was the first African-American U.S. Attorney and the first African-American federal judge in northern California. Braun served as an officer and director of The Other Bar, an organization dedicated to helping members of the legal profession recover from alcoholism. He was also the founder, president and co-director of The Other Road Foundation, a non-profit group that funds treatment for recovering alcoholics. He also served as director of the San Francisco Jewish Home for the Aged.
In 2007 the American Inns of Court bestowed its Ninth Circuit Professionalism Award to Sacramento lawyer Charity Kenyon, a founding partner of Riegels, Campos & Kenyon. Ms. Kenyon was an expert on First Amendment law who represented national, regional and local media clients before state and federal courts for 25 years. She was the principal counsel in more than 30 published media decisions involving access to court records and proceedings, reporter shield laws, and libel and defamation claims. The most famous among them was the 1999 appeal to the Ninth Circuit seeking media access to information about the Unabomber trial of Ted Kaczynski.
When the award was bestowed to Ms. Kenyon, the presenter emphasized “her willingness to share her knowledge with colleagues, particularly young lawyers, and to volunteer her time to assist the bench and bar.” During her career Ms. Kenyon served as faculty for appellate practice education programs sponsored by the California Academy of Appellate Lawyers, the Judicial Council of California and the State Bar of California.
She was a founding member of Sacramento’s Milton L. Schwartz American Inn of Court and served on its Executive Committee for four years. Ms. Kenyon was described as an exceptional mentor of young lawyers who worked with them in a warm, friendly way.
In more recent years Ms. Kenyon became involved in the ethics of health care. She authored or co-authored a number of articles on ethical issues in medicine including end-of-life decision. Ms. Kenyon also served on the ethics committees for Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento and U.C. Davis Medical Center.
Barre said, “Life is one long lesson in humility.” Einstein said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” Humility is simply the recognition that we are imperfect beings of limited knowledge and limited powers. We cannot succeed at anything without help from others, and when we fail we need the consolation, support and love of others to heal and move on.
Some people refuse to get it. One wit said she would like to learn humility but she was too busy thinking about herself to do it. Humility is not a poison pill to swallow and something to be avoided at all costs. Rather it is a virtue that enriches your life. It leads you away from self-absorption and egotistical, status-competition with others which generates envy, petty bickering, grudges and revenge. Humility leads you toward cooperating with others to reach a goal which transcends your narrow, personal interests. When a lawyer starts to see other lawyers as persons of value and potential friends, his world can change.
All of a sudden it’s not just about me. A humble lawyer is one who envisions himself as being part of a community. He may become a teacher, a mentor or raise money for scholarships. He might start an organization to help lawyers with problems in the area of professionalism, anger, depression, substance abuse or gambling. If his vision of the legal community extends beyond the borders of his own city, he could work for a bar association at the county, state or national level to enhance the conditions of law practice and the relationships between lawyers. He could even travel to foreign countries to teach law, help draft a constitution, speak on behalf of imprisoned legal professionals or monitor the fairness of an election.
When you’re humble you no longer decide the value of people based on superficial markers like their income, the style of their clothes or the car they drive. You can also release the urge to out-earn everyone else to prove your superiority. Humility is freeing. It frees up enormous reserves of time, energy and good-will that you can apply to building mutually-rewarding relationships with others.
Chapman says humans are not born humble. Infants don’t wait until mommy’s done tending to the older kids to cry for milk. Toddlers rip toys out of each other hands. Elementary school kids tease each other mercilessly to look cool or feel better about themselves. But, we can learn to be humble by practicing humility. Humans are creatures who can analyze and change their own attitudes and beliefs to improve their lives. What can you do right now to start practicing humility?
If you’re arguing with someone don’t cut them off or raise your voice to drown them out. Let them say what they want to say. Even if you disagree try saying “you’re right,” if doing so is simply a matter of letting that person know you accept his feelings about something. Next time you’re stumped ask someone else for help. Don’t assume you are treating your staff and family the way they would like to be treated. Now and then stop and ask them “how am I doing?” One expert suggests asking your children “how can I be a better parent?” every so often. When you succeed at something at work share credit with others. They will appreciate you for it. Good luck at being humble. At age 53 I’m only a beginning student of humility, and I’m sure I’ll be working on it the rest of my life. Thank goodness I have two kids and a wife to prick the balloon of my ego when I get too puffed up.