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Seven years ago this month, Attorney at Work was born — unfurling the prospect of hundreds and hundreds of daily posts on law practice management issues of every variety. It was early days and the list of contributors was small. As the editors, Joan Feldman and I often stepped in to write posts. As the holidays neared, we decided to write together about something important to both of us: being kind.
Looking back from here, that concept takes on even greater import. Kindness, in the face of a social and political turbulence no one could have foreseen, seems nearly forgotten. So today, with the holidays upon us, I ask you to try on a little kindness and see how it suits you. Perhaps it could become a habit?
1. Empathy is the No. 1 ingredient. Step one for any person seeking to be kind is to have an understanding of what the other wants and needs. For some, empathy comes easily, while others may have to work at it. But just ask yourself, in any given situation: What do they want or need? (Imagining yourself in their shoes, in their situation, is a good way to begin.) Knowing the answer, consider whether it is something you might provide or help them to find. Maybe that client could use a financial break this month. Can you offer a pause in their payment schedule? Perhaps a child could use a confidence boost when walking into a new school situation. Help out by reminding him how much you trust his ability to cope and remembering with him times when he did.
2. Engage in community service. Perhaps it’s an organized activity like serving in a soup kitchen, stuffing envelopes at a local campaign headquarters, or seeking appointment to the city planning commission. But you might just as easily contribute to your community by picking up litter and animal refuse around the neighborhood and looking people in the eye and wishing them good morning as you pass by.
3. Value someone else’s kindness. Chances are, there are people in your life who demonstrate kindness to others — to you, people you care about, even strangers. Make it a habit to observe these acts of kindness, praise them and share your observations about them with others. Obviously, they don’t volunteer at the health fair or donate supplies to the animal shelter to win your approval, but observing these acts and telling others about them is one way to build a culture of kindness. It reveals how you value it in others.
4. Explain things. Sure, it sounds simple, but explaining things well can be an enormous gift. If you have competence in an area and can make something important understandable, you will have done yourself as well as others a favor. The lawyer who spouts legalese, whether attempting to obfuscate or just from bad habit, is lacking in empathy and treating a client or colleague cruelly. Adjusting your language to suit someone’s ability to understand is not only kind but good sense. Remember, you haven’t actually communicated until 1) you speak the words and 2) your words have been understood.
5. Make kindness your modus operandi. Each day we are surrounded by opportunities to be kind at no expense to ourselves. Clients, potential clients, colleagues, staff, family, friends, pets … even strangers … represent chances to express your innate sympathy and kindness. But, you might say, “a lawyer must take a more cutthroat approach to the world. That is what people pay us for.” Based on decades of client feedback interviews and surveys, I disagree. Lawyers’ clients want to have their interests taken care of. This point is further supported by research conducted by Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory. In his recent book, “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” Keltner explores the oft-mentioned “survival of the fittest” approach to the world in the context of Charles Darwin’s writings.
“We so often assume,” he says, “both in the scientific community and in our culture at large, that Darwin thought humans were violent and competitive and self-interested in their natural state. That is a misrepresentation of what Darwin actually believed.” Keltner explains that in “The Descent of Man,” Darwin argued “we are a profoundly social and caring species” and our tendencies toward sympathy are instinctual and evolved (not just a cultural construct as many have assumed).
In a world struggling with the polar opposition of “working together to solve problems” and “they only understand one thing,” I posit it is time to bring your humanity to your lawyering.
Think about that as you try on some new forms of kindness this holiday season. See if you can’t develop a warmer approach to the world — goodness knows we need it — and spread a little of that around.
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