Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Two Weekends, Two Perspectives on A Lawyer's Mind

Well, I've traveled quite a distance physically and psychically the past ten days.  Although this is not a lawyer's blog, today it is.  I need to make it one to bring together two perspectives from two weekends .

I wrote earlier about last weekend and the Mindful Lawyer conference in Berkeley, California.  There, over 180 lawyers and others interested in the benefits of contemplative practices for lawyers gathered.  There, I had a lovely but rare feeling of being held as both a lawyer and a dharma student by the assembled lawyers.  This weekend, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers in Washington, D.C., an invitation-only organization of lawyers specializing in appearing before appellate courts, gathered over 120 lawyers for their 20th anniversary meeting.  All very experienced and very expert in our chosen line of work--persuading appellate judges and dealing in subtle nuances of constitutional, statutory, and common law and policy.  Because we were in Washington, where the pinnacle of the American judiciary labors, our meetings concentrated on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Panels of populated by the cream of the Washington, D.C. Supreme Court bar presented on the personal characteristics and legal views of the four newest members of the Supreme Court. The presenters knew the justices personally and for many years.  They were skilled speakers, making both the subjects viewed (the justices) and the lens through which they were seen (the presenters) equally fascinating to the audience of advocates.  To cap it off, Monday we all went to the U.S. Supreme Court and watched oral argument, listening to some of the same people who had presented to us. In the evening, we had a formal dinner in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court.  For an American lawyer, it was a visit to an almost holy spot.

For me personally, it was even more intense.  In 1969, after graduating from law school in Utah, I had the great good fortune to drive to Washington in a beat up Volkswagen and to enter that building as a law clerk to newly appointed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.  The transition from one who had not met a lawyer until I entered law school to working for the Chief Justice at the Supreme Court three years later could not have been more dramatic for me personally. Revisiting the building and again watching arguments was a very intense experience.  And all weekend, as I continually shifted perspectives on myself, on the place, and on the events, I was made profoundly aware of how thoroughly we co-create our reality, how the perspective we take dictates what we see, and how fully the universe shows us precisely what we ask to see.  Our map is not separate from the terrain it guides us over.  Change maps, and mountains are seen as plains, oceans deserts.

Last weekend in Berkeley I felt welcomed as a complete person, albeit one who was distressed often by how the lawyer's role truncates my reality, diminishes my ability to acknowledge all that is going on in my reality.  This weekend, I felt welcomed and in ways deeply nourished by a gathering of people who excelled in occupying a lawyer's role.  I was welcomed not because I was a dharma practitioner, someone trying to be a human who is a lawyer, but as a lawyer first and foremost, there because of what I have done, what I have achieved.  This gathering of lawyers was about being a sharp, accomplished legal instrument, about being a member of an elite.

While sitting in the meetings, and occupying the role that I felt called to, I noted the force of that call.  Being with accomplished people who are prized, and prize, their intelligence and honed skills, I felt a strong tendency to be seduced by that role, to see myself as that role, rather than it simply being one of many roles I occupy, one of many perspectives on reality, none of which provide me complete certainly or refuge.  Watching myself and others in that context, it seemed that while all present understand many subtle things important to manipulating the law and its reality for our clients, and most are richly rewarded for our accomplishments, on another level those accomplishments and skills do not result in the world responding in the way that we perhaps unconsciously anticipated it would when we set ourselves on this course years ago.  We have become good tools for others, but not for our own larger ends.

Comparing the two weekends, one where lawyers spoke of their neglected interiors, and the other where they manifested only their command of exteriors, I was even more deeply convinced that those who occupy powerful roles--in this case lawyers--are almost inevitably the victims of those roles.  The reality that those roles co-create is so seductive, so powerful and compelling, that freeing oneself from that particular reality is a huge challenge, but one I think must be undertaken both for us personally and for the benefit of the law and our society in the long run.  Lawyers, like anyone in a powerful role, implicitly assume that that skills that have brought them that power should be the skills with which all life's questions can be addressed. Yet precisely the opposite is true.  Only by dropping our most cherished roles, our most cherished perspectives on reality, can we hope to see reality whole and our relationship to and inseparability from it.  There is work to do here.

Two weekends, two perspectives.

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