When I think about the practice of law, and what makes it ultimately enjoyable to me and appreciated by my clients, I am reminded of the book entitled The Paradox of Choice.
My wife and I tend to go grocery shopping together. I hate it when she sends me into the toothpaste aisle. I cannot find what I want, and I often still pick up the wrong thing. I actually feel stress because of the gazillion choices I face in just trying to find a tube of toothpaste. Hell, toothpaste is just suppose to be an accessory to clean and maintain the aesthetics and health of my teeth. I am not buying it to eat for dinner. But now, instead of just choosing between a few brands, the world has decided to make what really is a combination of abrasives, fluoride and detergents into something sexy. As such, I am forced to choose between gel, paste, striped, cosmetic whiting or not, herbal, natural, tarter control, fluoride or not, antibacterial or not, and any number of flavors. There is the entire size thing. There are endless combinations from travel size to jumbo, requiring me to read the tiny cost or value per unit information post on each one. And there is no longer just a tube of toothpaste but any number of containers. Further, with the purchase of each, these days you have to consider the impact on the environment. It is just too much. It produces information and decision overload. And, what should be a celebration, I guess, of variety just leads to the consumption of my time and causes me anxiety. In the end, I just default to my old fashion tube of Colgate in red box. But even with that default, I will often grab the wrong box and have to make a second trip to the dreaded toothpaste aisle.
The subtitle of the book is "Why More Is Less". Essentially, the World is a contradiction. As stated by Barry Schwartz, "Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people every has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically."Essentially, the World is a contradiction that we all must strive to tame for ourselves should we seek to be happy in our practices.
Happiness is ultimately affected by the success or failure of a goal achieved. But, the endless and banal choices we face tend to offer more of a distraction. Hell, in most choices not only do we not know enough to choose what is best, we do not even know what we do not know to make the right decision. As such, choices tend to bring unhappiness to law grads, lawyers and their clients. The legal society, which was once a graduation right, has become a series of debilitating and demanding choices. It is what has made the practice of law and the decision to go to law school so painful for so many people.
I personally overcome this by focusing on a regiment, and eliminating the environments that result in many of the choices that would need to be made in my professional life otherwise. This sometimes produces some regret of the roads not traveled, but the overall result is the most comfortable for me. I seek to control my environment thereby eliminating my array of painful and often regretful options.
1. I NICHED MY LAW PRACTICE. This is more difficult than it sounds. But, I have greatly narrowed my practice area to what is just a few pages of the United States Bankruptcy Code. I try not to vary from it. My goal is to know, understand and apply every nuisance of this part of the Code better than anybody else. I traded some of my freedom for commitment. This is so difficult because most lawyers view this opportunities missed. I know the feeling well as I tend to be like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to practice areas. What I have learned, however, is that the real joy in life is knowing one thing, no matter how obscure, better than most anybody else. You cannot achieve that unless you are willing to take the leap of faith and commit to the niche. For me, geographic and affinity niches do not work. I need a universe the size of which I can master -- a universe that narrows the choices.
2. I MOVED MY LAW FIRM HOME AND ON THE WEB. Call me a hermit, I guess. But, I have a lot of attorneys venturing to my home and to The Woodlands, Texas to see how I do it. Outside office space, and traditional law firms so overwhelm with choices and options, without consideration of the consequences. It can just ruin the practice of law, emotionally if not financially. What type of space? Is there room to enlarge? The terms of the lease? Staffing issues? Overhead issues? Furnishing issues? Location of the space? Amenities? To partner up, to share space, to market the space, and that brings with it the whole ongoing drama of "The Office". And, then there is the commute. That raises issues of transportation, parking, gas cards, maintenance, and the like. And then clothing. Not so much as to whether I dress appropriately, but what will those around me think? Each of these decisions result in endless choices, each with an endless number of consequences the result of which you cannot possibly know. It is time consuming, it is unprofitable, it is anxiety ridden, and it can be ultimately painful. I have never had one of these areas, no matter how successful overall, not lead to regrets.
3. I TAKE CONTROL OF MY CASES. Because I have put myself in a position where I cannot do everything, I have to try to chose my cases and clients well. The practice of law is more of an art than a science. Not every case works out well for the client or the attorney, for that matter. You want the cases to work out all of the time, but they need to work out most of the time. This very much relies on the relationship with your clients, and your decision of how you chose to practice. It seems to me that a client is retaining a lawyer for his or her expertise. If the client wants to analyze the situation legalistically and make the decisions that arises, if the client wants those choices, then the client does not need my expertise that much. People use to go to a lawyer with a problem, and the lawyer would say, "This is what we are going to do"? The client would agree, or not. The client decide on the lawyer and had faith in that lawyer. Today, the client goes to the lawyer and, especially because the law is so much more complicated and full of nuisance, the lawyer says here are the choices. Here is the risk of each choice. Then the lawyer asks, "What choice do you want"? The client asks, "Which should I take", and the lawyer again says, "Here are your choices and the risks". Then the client asks, "If you were me, which would you choose", to which the lawyer says, "But, I am not you". Today, we shift the burden to the client. We shift the burden to the one that does not know the answer and that does not have the legal knowledge or experience. We shift the burden to the one that does not know enough to know what they do not know. Further, we shift the burden to the one who is emotional blinded by the event or problem faced. It is not that I do not explain the options and the risks to my potential clients and clients. It is not that I do not let them decide to settle or litigate a case. I do. I do so thoroughly, openly and above board. What I do is explain to them the choice we, together, are accepting and why. If they do not want that choice, they are free to go elsewhere, and there are no hard feelings with the client making the choice to either not retain me or ending my representation either.
For happiness in the practice of law we attorneys have to shrink the toothpaste aisle of choices. It is really that simple.