Michael P. Maslanka, assistant professor of law, UNT Dallas College of Law. (Danny Hurley)
And now for “Aspiring Lawyer,” in which a would-be lawyer declares to an already-admitted lawyer that she’d be fantastic, because behind Door No. 1: “I relish arguing.” Or behind Door No. 2: “I have a photographic memory.” Or behind Door No. 3: “A jury will just love me because everyone does.” Or perhaps all three reasons plus “I want to make some serious coin.” Our dilemma, do we validate her beliefs or do we quiz her to “stress test” her dreams? (My thoughts? Validation is for parking.) So here are five questions designed not to determine whether someone should become a lawyer, but rather will they be fulfilled as a lawyer. Let’s play.
No. 1: Are you a peacemaker, or only a warrior?
Litigation and trial are avenues of last resort, just like surgery. Lincoln aptly remarked, “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.” (Recall Voltaire’s wise counsel that he only went broke twice: the first time when he lost a lawsuit, and the second when he won a lawsuit.) My point: adrenaline rushes come in different flavors.
No. 2: Are you a lifelong learner?
Each of our egos is wired with the need to feel competent. We thus love concluding, “Yes, now I understand. I have arrived.” So new facts, ideas, and concepts get rejected in order to preserve our precious image of competence. A dangerous delusion. Auden nailed it when he said: “We would rather be destroyed than changed.” Or the selfish needs of the ego eclipse a crucial opportunity to learn. Consider this story. A professor seeking to know more of Zen visits a Zen master. The master pours his tea, as the professor expounds on all he knows of Zen. As the professor drones on, the master keeps pouring until the hot tea splashes the professor’s trousers. “Stop!” exclaims the professor, “Why do you keep pouring?” The master calmly responds, “Your tea cup is as full as your mind. I can teach you nothing.” Ouch!
No. 3: Are you able to deal with uncertainty?
For some the answer is an emphatic “yes,” for others an unequivocal “no.” But being able to do so is in our job description. Law practice is more art than science; driven more by general precepts than ironclad rules; and more intelligent guesswork than slam-dunk certainties. Epictetus expressed these concepts 2,000 years ago: “It is laughable to say tell me what to do (or think). How could I possibly give you an answer? No, a better result is to train your mind to adapt to any circumstance … in this way, if circumstances go off script, you won’t be looking for a new prompting.” True then, true now.
No. 4: Are you a rock?
News bulletin to aspirants: legitimately injured clients will not always be awarded damages, judges will rule erroneously on your objection, and cases that you should win, you will lose. This is a central truth in law practice. But there is a more important truth illuminated by the relationship between Hamlet (a troubled client) and his counselor Horatio. Hamlet tells Horatio why he is valued by him: “For thou hast been—as one in suffering all that suffers nothing—a man that Fortune buffets and rewards and gives equal thanks to all.” Or, as a client told a law partner, at the conclusion of a difficult engagement, “You’ve been a rock.” Be a rock.
No. 5: Are you a professional?
It’s great to dress well, to know the correct utensil to use at a formal dinner and to observe the civility of “please” and “thank you.” (I guess one out of three isn’t a terrible score.) But to understand the answer we must visit ancient Rome. A physician or a lawyer is on a raised platform and publicly proclaims (the Latin is “professus”) to fellow citizens that their needs came first, not his. From this “professus” comes “professional.”
Here’s unconventional wisdom: We do get to pick our families, at least our professional ones. This insight dawned on me as I was proctoring my 1L Contracts final, and was looking out at intensely concentrating students, seeking to live their dream. Sister and brother lawyers also will get to pick their professional families when giving a caring yet candid answer to “should I become a lawyer?”