observations and opinion
It is hard to know if your life adds up to much, until someone tells you.
Last week, without my noticing, a moment came and passed: the anniversary of my Call to the Bar. This wasn’t just any April 18th, but a turning point – a tipping point: I have now been a lawyer longer, than I was not a lawyer.
Actually, the real “half way point” happened a while ago, but I wasn’t paying attention. But the anniversary sparked the realization: I have been doing this more than half my life.
What is the “this”? Being a lawyer offers a suitcase full of career options, and I’ve dipped into a few of them: prosecutor, policy advisor, bureaucrat, arbitrator of injury claims, worker’s compensation “guru” , professor, public speaker, courtroom advocate, supposedly (hopefully) wise counsel. I have been reading, thinking, talking, deciding and advising for a while now. I hope I get more time doing it. It’s a good job, actually.
The law, particularly in private practice, is very often about conflict between people, groups, interests and companies. It is often combat over money or credit. Very few people enter into such battle believing they are in the wrong. They believe – rightly or wrongly – that they are in the right. That is especially true in the most personal dimensions of human conflict, such as family law (which early on, I knew that I could not do).
Over the years, I have watched the effect of conflict on people – claimants, clients, colleagues – and the effect is seldom good. We have to stand up for what we know is true and believe is morally right, but such a stance is rarely free. It costs. Not only does it drain the pocket book, it drains the body and soul.
Having witnessed this phenomenon over and over, and over, again, I have learned to approach conflicts not only from the vantage point of “the facts” and “the law” but also, what kind of people are involved. Are they serious? Are they calm? Are they crazy? Are they frenzied with rage about the fight? Are they resilient? In short – are they up to it?
At the start, they always think they are game. This lasts a little while, until the first meetings bleed into the follow up emails and phone calls, when the hot rush of energy they felt at the gate gives way to the laborious trudge down the long, muddy track. I have been inspired to tell some, in the early days, “I know you feel good about the case today. Let’s see how you feel after you get my second bill.”
But surprisingly, money is less often a barrier to fighting law suit than you might think. Often the stakes are so high, that paying a fair amount of money to lawyers, for years, is simply “a cost of doing business.” Because it IS a cost of doing business. And for company managers or bureaucrats, who aren’t spending their own money, the price of a legal action is of interest, but is hardly determinative.
I learned that lesson – and another- most poignantly from a government manager, who we will call Daphne. Daphne was a career civil servant, senior in her department, whose department had been cursed with a really, really terrible employee named Simone. Simone was one of those people whose laptop keys hurt her fingertips, whose briefcase made her sneeze, who developed stomach cramps looking out the window at the rain. Simone was one of those people who expected others to do her work, and she was one of those people who accomplished that, all while getting paid.
Eventually Daphne, to her credit and her enduring misery, said “enough!” Someone had to stand up to the takers, the users, the frauds, the malingerers, the crooks, the liars, the lazy slobs sucking fortunes from the public trough through rolled-up doctors’ notes. Daphne said “enough!” and she engaged an army of lawyers (including me, for a time) to do battle.
Daphne dove in, deep and hard. I was an ardent and creative soldier in her war, but soon began to see signs of cracking. Not in the case, but in Daphne. Visiting her office, in an office tower high above Toronto’s Don Valley on a beautiful Fall day, I looked out the window at the resplendent colours. But Daphne never looked out the window. Her desk faced the other way, towards a wall. And on that wall was a bookcase. And on that bookcase were files – files and files and files – containing the Simone case. THAT is what Daphne stared at all day and all evening long. Even if she was doing something else, that is what her eyes would land on in idle moments.
It struck me as a bad furniture arrangement.
And the case itself, was hopeless. Hopeless not because of the facts or law, not because of Daphne, but because of the gut-freezing cowardice and moral emptiness of her bosses, the senior public service management. They didn’t care about Simone, or the principle, or the money being siphoned off. They just wanted to stay out of the media, avoid arguments and apply lipstick to their Deputy Minister’s buttocks. They ordered Daphne to settle, pouring hundreds of thousands more of the taxpayers’ dollars onto Simone. It was a terrible thing to witness. I cannot really measure how crushing and disgusting it was for Daphne.
I walked away from that case, with one burning memory: Daphne’s office, her desk and her bookcase. The furniture arrangement. And from that memory I took a lesson, a lesson about the choices we make in life, and how we choose.
Yesterday I had a phone call from a client. We talked about his business, his exciting future plans, his employees. He is an impressive guy. The conversation went well. And then he said something:
“Do you remember that we worked together before, about five years ago?”
“Of course” I said.
“You remember that we suffered fraud? An employee took about $150,000 from us, and he even stole from my home.”
I did remember, it was a terrible case – a deep betrayal by the employee, very cleverly using his role in the finance department to send himself money for years.
“Well” the client said, “I remember what you told me.”
This was interesting. Oh?
“You told me: You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.”
I smiled, but I also felt goosebumps. Of course I had told him that. It is the lesson that I learned watching Daphne, and so many other clients, choose a battle. A battle they were perfectly right to pursue, but not without personal cost.
“You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.” I’ve said it a thousand times, to a thousand people, in private meetings and public speeches. It is an easy sentence to say. It is an incredibly difficult thing to learn. You aren’t getting this moment back, friend – do you really want to spend it in a fight? And for what?
The man on the phone went on to tell me, how that advice entered his head. It made him realize the battle with the fraudster would gain him nothing, but cost him much – not just legal fees, but minutes, hours, weeks. Time he could live his life in, build his business in. He adopted the lesson, and he said, he lives it. Not just in business, but in real life.
I was truly moved to hear this. In more than half a lifetime of giving advice, of trying to see what is right and possible, I had learned something very true and I had managed to change a life with it. For the better.
And so this week, this Tipping Point anniversary, I am encouraged to think that maybe – maybe – all that reading and thinking and talking and writing and worrying and working – all of it, all those thousands of hours of learning and sometimes teaching, made a difference. In one life at least.
How very generous of that man, don’t you think, to let me know.
I will remember what he told me.