Humility and the Recovering Lawyer

Humility is not a word commonly associated with lawyers, but it is something I learned in recovery, and found essential in the study and practice of law. When I got sober, the “old timers” taught me that humility was the process of being teachable. One old timer said “humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

I was an undergraduate when I entered recovery. I made mistakes, hurt many people, and thought I dug a hole that was impossible to escape. That pain made me open for change, and created a willingness to ask for help and to take suggestions. I went to a recovery meeting every day, and surrounded myself with sober people. They had a way of living that I wanted, and I had a great deal of faith in their knowledge and genuine desire to help me get and stay sober. That was twenty-three years ago, and I still work on my recovery every day with a strong fellowship.

I went to law school in my thirties. I had been sober for several years, but floundered in my professional career. Prior to law school I worked in a laundry list of careers, some ending by choice, necessity, or by the decisions of others. By the time I was ready for law school, I felt like my twenties were wasted, and I was on the road to nowhere. As a result, I came into law school much the same way I came into recovery – desperately wanting a change, which created a willingness to ask for help and to do what was suggested. In a word, I came to law school with humility.

Legal writing was my first law school class. I remember the class had several paralegals, which made me nervous. They all had experience writing like a lawyer, using proper Bluebook citations, and using the active voice instead of the passive voice. I was pretty sure I did not stand a chance to be in the top of this class.

Humility has a funny way of working, though. Since I had no experience with legal writing, I did everything the legal writing instructor advised. I learned the Bluebook citations, eliminated pronouns and contractions, and started writing in the active voice. Unlike the paralegals in the class who knew shortcuts and other methods of writing, and did not need the instruction, I followed the instruction and got the better grade.

Few other atmosphere’s call for humility more than the first few years of practicing law. After law school I got a good job with a legal consulting firm. Despite a quality legal education, I was amazed at how little of the law I actually knew. I came into my new job knowing how to analyze a case, distinguish sections of a contract, and write in the active voice.

None of this impressed my new supervisors or clients. Instead, they wanted to know how to implement the regulations associated with Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare). My law school did not include that in our studies, and I was scared.

To make my new career work I needed to practice the same principles I learned in early recovery and law school, I needed to have a genuine desire to learn by listening and following the examples of those who have what I want. I needed to practice law with humility.

I suspect many new attorneys find this blast of humility difficult, especially those who have enjoyed many successes prior to becoming an attorney. I consider myself blessed to have suffered through many failures prior to becoming a lawyer. The lessons learned from those experiences have made me more willing to want to change my defects, ask for help, and learn from those who have been there before. In short, humility has kept me sober, guided me through law school, and is making me a better lawyer; but I still have much to learn.