Simplicity and Balance in the Plaintiff Profession
I was building a pump shed with my judge friend, Margie (aka, the Honorable Margaret Oldendorf), when she told me she intended to re-read Walden by Henry David Thoreau. She said her life was getting complicated and she wanted to focus on getting back to basics, especially when it comes to staying better connected with family and friends.
Now, Thoreau, you may recall, is one of our treasured American philosophers. Walden, of course, was his account of living by a pond for two years in Massachusetts under fairly primitive conditions, even for the 1840’s. Most of us know about Thoreau only because we were forced to read him in high school. Depending on how well we followed the assignment, we may or may not remember his admonition:
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quick-sands and thousand and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
I think that was the passage Margie wanted to revisit.
To which, I would guess most of us would say, “Yeah, right!” and smirk, because we know that being a plaintiff lawyer in the first part of the 21st Century is anything but simple. It’s one thing to be simple while hanging out by the pond back before the Civil War. It’s another to try the same feat in an era of Blackberries, fast track and malpractice liability exposure.
Then, I ran into a prominent sole practitioner, John Torgeson, at the Loyola Civil Justice Program fundraiser. I asked him how he’s been doing. He smiled at me and it didn’t even looked strained. “There’s a new word in my vocabulary,” he told me enthusiastically. “It’s called, balance.” I was a little taken aback. Simplicity? Balance? Just what is going on here, anyway?
In truth, Judge Oldendorf’s simplicity and John Torgeson’s balance have always been with us, but in our rush to service clients, find new work, get the money in and everything else that goes with a busy law practice, we tend to forget these basics unless something pops up to force them into our awareness.
We all probably know people who are caught up in complexity in their practices. They rush about. They struggle endlessly to find time to attend to everything on their plate. We probably have all been that person from time to time.
As for unbalanced lives, we’ve all seen that defect destroy friends and their families, be it through over-work, drug addiction, alcohol abuse or love lost through neglect.
I once asked a lawyer of humble beginnings who had banked a large fortune if wealth was everything he’d dreamed it would be. “It’s more of a curse, actually,” he told me. He was struggling at the time with one of his children in a rehab program populated exclusively by other children from wealthy families. I felt great compassion for him, but also a certain helplessness. Balance comes from within, I think.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, another great American philosopher who was friends with Thoreau, had an interesting theory about how all this works. He published his notions in an essay called “Compensation.”
Basically, Emerson believed that in life, just as in physics, for every action there is something akin to an equal and opposite reaction. “Polarity, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature,” he wrote. “The same dualism underlies the nature and condition of man. Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet has its sour, every evil its good.”
Emerson had an apt warning for those of us who might envy colleagues that seem more successful, or more prominent, or more powerful than we: “The farmer imagines power and place are fine things. But the President has paid dear for his White House. It has commonly cost him all his peace, and the best of his manly attributes.”
Was Emerson on to something? Or is it all nonsense and are the only things of true value in this world material goods, large mansions and political clout?
I suppose you have to decide the answer to that question for yourself. In truth, it is one of the questions that, when answered honestly, will define you as an individual. I don’t suppose there is any single correct answer to the question. Not that we’ll learn in this life, anyway.
As for me, two years ago, I turned 50 and realized that while my professional and family life seemed in sync, my physical fitness left a lot to be desired. So I rebalanced a little, cut out some volunteering that didn’t seem productive, competed in my first triathlon at 51 and will run my first marathon in February. What I’ve found is, now that I’m no longer neglecting my fitness, my focus at work has improved and I’m having more fun with the family. I think that, for now, my life is simpler and better balanced. It’s a constant struggle, though.
I was discussing all this with my friend, Ed Wallace, as we were cycling over the Sepulveda pass to Santa Monica from the Valley. As I recall, our conversation went something like this . . .
I told Ed I was writing a column and asked him if he thought balance was important in his life and practice. I already knew where he stood on simplicity; he’s told me many times that in his practice, the simpler the better.
Ed was quiet for a long time, at first I wasn’t sure if he had heard me. Then he started talking thoughtfully. I had to strain to hear him over the wind.
“I know there’s been times when I spent too much time on my practice,” he said slowly. I knew he was thinking about his two boys. “But then,” he added, “sometimes, when there could be more business coming in, I think that I’m not spending enough time.”
“So, balance is a moving target?” I asked.
“I suppose so,” he said, as we downshifted to spin up the hill.
“Probably different for everyone,” I mused.
“I suppose,” he answered.
Then we both fell silent as we peddled simply up through the pass. I imagined Thoreau and Emerson looking down at us. I thought I saw them smile.Filed Under Business Practices, Completely Different, Employment, Insurance, Reading List, Safety