Oklahoma Bar Journal
Five Steps to Support Your Lawyer’s Soul
By Angie Hooper
If humans are spiritual creatures having a human experience,1 lawyers are also spiritual creatures having a lawyering experience. The next phase of mental wellness for lawyers will include care for a lawyer’s spiritual nature. Below are five ways to support your soul through the practice of law and not in spite of it. Before the action steps, consider why supporting your spiritual nature matters.
Symbolically, lawyers can be seen as guardians of the foundation of society, like Roman temple priests of the modern age. At licensing, we take vows of service and loyalty to the constitutions of our state and country. At the courthouse, we are admitted to the bar, the area of the courthouse set apart to access justice directly. In the conference room, we handle the contracts that are esoteric writings that form the underpinning of our economy. We use mysterious language only we understand. We ask our novitiates to serve as associates for years before being admitted to law firm partnership, and we have special privileges to hear the secrets of our clients. But while the lawyer’s role is guardianship of civic and secular power, the lawyer’s soul may be ignored in favor of logic and argument.
For some lawyers, a disconnect between mind and soul will result in spiritual malaise unless they can successfully map their practice of law to their soul’s purpose. But what would it mean to practice law from the soul? Could any lawyer ask the question without the risk of being thought a little unusual? If we buy into the stereotypes of lawyers as litigious, argumentative, sharp dealing contract drafters working for an unfair advantage, it might be difficult to entertain the idea of practicing law as a sacred journey. For some lawyers, though, who are meeting their professional obligations but failing to find happiness and fulfillment, addressing the needs of their soul could be the resolution.
Consider whether there is a general idea in our society that asking questions about the soul’s purpose is like a thought experiment but not part of the “real world” made up of our physical circumstances. This may be especially true for lawyers whose practices are rewarded most strongly for logical argument. In court, unless evidence can be proffered, it did not happen. If a contract did not record the promise, it was not made. The focus on documentation, argument, logic and proof suits the competent practice of law, but it may leave some lawyers feeling empty. That feeling of emptiness is not sustainable over decades of legal practice. We lose talented lawyers when the payoff for practicing law is outweighed by competing values and life goals. At some point, the “why” of a legal career must sync with the “how” to be able to joyfully remain in the profession.
At our best, lawyering is a vocation, not just a job. Lawyers shepherd our country’s sacred core values of individual rights, property ownership, justice and others. One area to notice the competition between professional goals and the less tangible needs of the soul emerges whenever you hear a lawyer reminisce about going to law school “because they had good grades and were too squeamish for medical school” or because “they didn’t know what else to do with their liberal arts degree.” This is one way we protect ourselves from the truth that we were called to the bar. This allows us to avoid wrestling with the needs of our souls for another day.
A lawyer who denies the influence of their soul on their legal practice will be at war with themselves. Constantly wondering what other profession they should have chosen, what other law firm they should join or whether they should go in-house. Tempted to find an external solution to an internal disquiet, constantly directing their attention outward to find the set of circumstances that will quiet the noise in their mind. It is more socially acceptable to have a career crisis than a spiritual crisis.
Talking about supporting the needs of the lawyer’s soul as part of a career conversation is a daunting prospect. Although lawyers, as a profession, become astute in psychological vocabulary, self-help tips, scientific principles, religious motivations and human behavior, a conversation about the state of one’s soul can seem beyond the pale. Unfortunately, rather than feeling empowered to use such vocabulary for a career conversation about vocation and purpose, we hesitate to recognize and support a lawyer having a spiritual crisis, particularly when the lawyer is an employee or colleague. When having a soul conversation with my coaching clients, I have the advantage of being able to ask what type of religious symbolism and vocabulary is comforting to them and what feels unhelpful. Those are not conversations we typically have at work.
A spiritual crisis is different than a mental health crisis or even a really bad day. A spiritual crisis shakes the foundation of who you think you are and asks you to rebuild a deeper and stronger foundation. This can follow a personal tragedy, a professional setback, a seismic shift across society or all of these. Oklahomans have experienced the 2020 triple threat of social distancing, the 25th anniversary of the Murrah Building bombing and a chaotic economy. Life feeling turned upside down is common, but not required, to kick off a spiritual crisis. A spiritual crisis can also begin with the thought that arrives at a quiet moment, seemingly out of nowhere, asking, “Why am I here?”
The question, “Why am I here?” puts the questioner on the path of self-examination and can invite the questioner to view their practice as a calling instead of a career. It is very difficult to stop knowing what you know and to un-ask what you have asked. All lawyers know it is impossible to un-ring a bell. The tricky part for anyone accustomed to being an expert is feeling able to embrace the twin companions of curiosity and uncertainty. This question, “Why am I here?” is a Pandora’s box of a question, emerging as heartache but always ending with hope.
Once a lawyer, or any person, begins to ask the question of their soul’s purpose, every part of life must weigh in – personal and family relationships, community obligations, choice of clients and manner of relating to opposing counsel. Judges have been telling lawyers for years that civility in the profession is a problem. I suggest a lack of civility is actually a symptom of lawyers whose pain leaks out in their professional actions. Not to excuse lack of civility but to give us a basis as a profession to acknowledge common humanity alongside our zealous advocacy. If I am unable to acknowledge humanity sitting across the negotiating table and only feel powerful when I attempt to belittle or obstruct others, my actions will be uncivil. Ostensibly on behalf of clients, a lawyer who engages in incivility may be simply acting out an existential crisis by creating chaos for other lawyers. Tougher penalties would not help much in that situation. Such a lawyer will continue to engage in incivility even in the face of sanctions and call it zealous advocacy.
Rather than resistance, contemplate the question while simultaneously not needing to understand the entire answer in order to move forward. And ultimately, the willingness to have an answer, whether clarity comes or not, may be the resolution. Typically, we are not taught how to deal with a dark night of the soul or anything related to our soul’s well-being.
FIVE STEPS TO SUPPORT YOUR LAWYER’S SOUL
- Stop the wobble. Let yourself off the hook of wondering if you should be doing something different with your career. Decide right now to be OK that being a lawyer in your current role is your current expression of your soul’s journey. Maybe you could be working as a public defender advocating for wrongly accused death row inmates or maybe you could be the general counsel of the Fortune 500 company that funds those who do that work. You have to be where you are now before you can go anywhere else.
- Assume your soul has a strategy. Your soul has a strategy to help you become the person you were created to be. Think of this as the way you create a case strategy or negotiating strategy toward the outcome you want for your client. Notice if the same archetype sits across the negotiating table from you wearing different suits, so you have a chance to create a new way of responding. Or you may feel like suddenly all your clients show up with the same issue because that issue reminds you of something that needs to be healed in your own soul.
- Name your higher power. If you have an existing religious practice, this may be easy for you. Choosing a name for a higher power gives you the vocabulary to wrestle with the symbolic. If you are not sure what name to choose, consider: God, Creator, Benevolent Universe, Lovingkindness, Source, Choice, Higher Self, Natural Law, Beloved or Cause and Effect. Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with the nature of the divine for centuries, so allow yourself to choose this name as a symbol that works for you.
- Trust your gut. The soul speaks in metaphor and symbolism. That makes intuition powerful but also makes it easy to think ourselves out of following intuition. Great lawyers tend to have mastered using their intuition. If you are self-conscious about talking about an intuitive nudge, most people are comfortable with a gut feeling as a starting point, even if they want to fill in the logic behind it. If you begin with the assumption your intuition is correct to inspire you to look again at a situation, new ideas will appear.
- Map your values to your practice. Reinvigorate your purpose by mapping out how your core values2 match up to the way you practice law. Because there are so many professional rules governing the practice of law, it is easy to assume the professional rules are the same as your values or to make a false distinction between your values at work and your values for your personal life. If you can see how you express your core values in your professional activity, you will feel more aligned in your practice. For instance, you may have a personal value of compassion and not see immediately how this plays out when you are negotiating. To begin mapping your personal values to your practice, choose one core value, and ask yourself these questions:
- What actions do you take when you are expressing this value?
- How do you feel when you are living this value in your practice?
- What do you consume (that is, what do you eat, wear, use)?
- How do you communicate verbally and nonverbally with other lawyers? With support staff? Clients?
- What judgments or assessments are you making (about your clients, opposing counsel, colleagues, support staff) when you live this value?
These steps can help you become more aware of being a spiritual creature having a lawyer experience. Each of us has a daily opportunity to experience the practice of law as a grind or a great adventure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angie Hooper, Happy at Law LLC, helps attorneys find happiness while practicing law. She has represented international energy, mining and manufacturing companies and is a professionally trained executive coach. She received her J.D. from the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law and is licensed in Oklahoma and Texas.
- The saying, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience,” has been variously attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Wayne Dyer and others. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2019/06/20/spiritual/.
- You can find lists of values online to choose your core values or work with a coach to go through an exercise to identify your core values.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 91 No. 10 (December 2020)