Wellness Wednesday: Make Well-Being an Expectation in the Attorney-Client Relationship.

Today, I was perusing the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s website.  I found this post by Ben Carpenter:

Making Well-Being an Expectation in Attorney-Client Relationships

Whether here or at seminars, I often mention the importance of setting reasonable client expectations at the outset of the representation.  This post is representative of the message. 

In addition, I’ve used wellness presentations to urge lawyers to set boundaries with clients and opposing counsel.  When I do, I remind lawyers that the duties of diligence and communication are modified by the word “reasonable[1],” and that there are times when it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to clients and opposing counsel:

  • Tomorrow.
  • After your kid’s game, recital, or event.
  • After you finish lunch.
  • After you get back from the short walk you’re on.
  • After you finish the email in which you’re responding to a different client or opposing counsel.

What I’ve never thought to do is to suggest to lawyers that the expectations they set with clients include an expectation as to how lawyer and client will treat each other.  What a great idea!

Back to Carpenter’s post . . .

. . . the title conveys it all: setting expectations with clients includes setting expectations about how you’re going to treat each other.  I did not pay Attorney Carpenter to author the post, but I endorse the message.

While I recommend the entire post, I want to focus on three paragraphs.

First:

  • “There is a stigma around well-being, as if adopting behaviors that support well-being may compromise a lawyer’s ability to provide exceptional service. Well-being is a responsibility, not a luxury, that is an integral component of our collective ability to satisfy our duty of competency.  Adopting behaviors that support well-being is not only necessary to the profession, but it makes us better lawyers.”

Yes! In the introduction to last week’s quiz, I wrote that civility is not weakness. Looking out for your own well-being isn’t either. It’s a responsibility that will make you healthier and better equipped to honor your duties to your clients. In other words, and to paraphrase Carpenter, well-being isn’t a luxury, it’s an aspect of competence.

Next:

  • “In today’s environment of flexible work arrangements and ubiquitous communication devices, there is no single set of rules or standards that work for everyone. It is easy to lose boundaries, and to assume that having the ability to connect means we should always be connected.  Therefore, in these times, it is more important than ever to discuss and confirm expectations for availability and how to connect.”

Yes!  Just because we can connect doesn’t mean that we must connect.  As I mentioned above, the duties of diligence and communication are modified by the word “reasonable.”

Finally, the coach and runner in me loved this sentence:

  • “Ultimately, we hope that the guidelines will become forgotten and replaced by adopted habits and practices that have become part of our culture and relationships.”

We must make well-being a habit. And habits don’t happen overnight. They only develop as a result of a commitment to repetition.  We used to tell our players that we weren’t going to work on things until they remembered them, we were going to work on things until it was impossible for the players to forget them.  That’s a habit. And, as I blogged long ago, I agree with Carpenter that we should strive to make wellness a habit.

In closing, set reasonable expectations with clients, including expectations that foster the well-being of all involved in the relationship.


[1] V.R.Pr.C. 1.3 requires a lawyer to “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”  V.R.Pr.C. 1.4(a)(3) requires a lawyer to “keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter.”  V.R.Pr.C. 1.4(a)(4) requires a lawyer to “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”

Today, I was perusing the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s website.  I found this post by Ben Carpenter:

Making Well-Being an Expectation in Attorney-Client Relationships

Whether here or at seminars, I often mention the importance of setting reasonable client expectations at the outset of the representation.  This post is representative of the message. 

In addition, I’ve used wellness presentations to urge lawyers to set boundaries with clients and opposing counsel.  When I do, I remind lawyers that the duties of diligence and communication are modified by the word “reasonable[1],” and that there are times when it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to clients and opposing counsel:

  • Tomorrow.
  • After your kid’s game, recital, or event.
  • After you finish lunch.
  • After you get back from the short walk you’re on.
  • After you finish the email in which you’re responding to a different client or opposing counsel.

What I’ve never thought to do is to suggest to lawyers that the expectations they set with clients include an expectation as to how lawyer and client will treat each other.  What a great idea!

Back to Carpenter’s post . . .

. . . the title conveys it all: setting expectations with clients includes setting expectations about how you’re going to treat each other.  I did not pay Attorney Carpenter to author the post, but I endorse the message.

While I recommend the entire post, I want to focus on three paragraphs.

First:

  • “There is a stigma around well-being, as if adopting behaviors that support well-being may compromise a lawyer’s ability to provide exceptional service. Well-being is a responsibility, not a luxury, that is an integral component of our collective ability to satisfy our duty of competency.  Adopting behaviors that support well-being is not only necessary to the profession, but it makes us better lawyers.”

Yes! In the introduction to last week’s quiz, I wrote that civility is not weakness. Looking out for your own well-being isn’t either. It’s a responsibility that will make you healthier and better equipped to honor your duties to your clients. In other words, and to paraphrase Carpenter, well-being isn’t a luxury, it’s an aspect of competence.

Next:

  • “In today’s environment of flexible work arrangements and ubiquitous communication devices, there is no single set of rules or standards that work for everyone. It is easy to lose boundaries, and to assume that having the ability to connect means we should always be connected.  Therefore, in these times, it is more important than ever to discuss and confirm expectations for availability and how to connect.”

Yes!  Just because we can connect doesn’t mean that we must connect.  As I mentioned above, the duties of diligence and communication are modified by the word “reasonable.”

Finally, the coach and runner in me loved this sentence:

  • “Ultimately, we hope that the guidelines will become forgotten and replaced by adopted habits and practices that have become part of our culture and relationships.”

We must make well-being a habit. And habits don’t happen overnight. They only develop as a result of a commitment to repetition.  We used to tell our players that we weren’t going to work on things until they remembered them, we were going to work on things until it was impossible for the players to forget them.  That’s a habit. And, as I blogged long ago, I agree with Carpenter that we should strive to make wellness a habit.

In closing, set reasonable expectations with clients, including expectations that foster the well-being of all involved in the relationship.

Previous Wellness Wednesday Posts


[1] V.R.Pr.C. 1.3 requires a lawyer to “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”  V.R.Pr.C. 1.4(a)(3) requires a lawyer to “keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter.”  V.R.Pr.C. 1.4(a)(4) requires a lawyer to “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.”

It’s healthy for legal employers to value employees as people.

In 2018, the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession published its State Action Plan.  As I blogged here and here, I’m a big fan of the recommendations made by the Commission’s Legal Employers Committee.  Among other things, the Committee stated:

  • “Legal employers, meaning all entities that employ lawyers, paralegals and legal assistants, can play a pivotal role in promoting and maintaining lawyer well-being.”

I agree 100%.  Which is one of the reasons that I’ve incorporated wellness and referred to the Committee’s recommendations for legal employers at nearly every CLE I’ve presented so far this month.  I will continue to do so, that’s how much of a fan I am of the Committee’s work.

Today, however, I’m here to share a new tip for legal employers: the more you value your employees as people instead of as revenue producers, the better for their well-being.

Says who?

Experts who asked the employees.  That’s who.

In 2020, the California Law Association (CLA) and the District of Columbia Bar Association (DC Bar) agreed to participate in a research project to study issues related to lawyers and their behavioral health.  Last Friday, the CLA announced the project’s most recent findings.  The findings are based on “research [that] examined the relationship between what lawyers think their employers value most about them, and the mental and physical health of those lawyers.”

To me, the key findings are both unsurprising and eye-opening.

As summarized by the CLA, the study

  • “found that lawyers who felt most valued for their professional talent/skill or overall human worth had the best mental and physical health. Lawyers who felt most valued for their billable hours, productivity, and responsiveness were a distant second in mental and physical health. Lawyers who did not feel valued by their employers or did not receive enough feedback to know what their employers value about them fared the worst in terms of mental and physical health. In addition, lawyers who felt most valued for their professional talent/skill or overall human worth were much less likely to report they were considering leaving the profession.”

Imagine that! Valuing your employees for their “human” worth is better for their well-being than valuing them as revenue-producers or not showing them that you value them at all!

(The findings appear in a report by the researchers that was originally published in Behavioral Sciences.1)

The researchers surveyed thousands of members of the CLA and DC Bar. Based on their responses, lawyers were broken into three groups.  Those groups, and each group’s percentage of the total were:

  • Feel valued for their talent, skill, humanity:                               62%
  • Feel valued for their productivity & financial worth:                28%
  • Don’t feel valued or receive no feedback as to value:                10%

And here’s how the researchers ranked each group’s behavioral health and risk of attrition from the profession:

  • Feel valued for their talent, skill, humanity:                               Best health, lowest risk
  • Feel valued for their productivity & financial worth:                Worse health, higher risk
  • Don’t feel valued or receive no feedback as to value:                Worst health, highest risk

For more details, check out this infographic.

According to the CLA, the “key takeaways for legal employers” are:

  • “Employers who can make their lawyers feel more valued for their skill or humanity may be able to improve lawyer well-being, reduce healthcare costs, and mitigate unwanted turnover.
  • Providing clear and regular feedback may reduce stress and improve mental health.
  • By targeting and seeking to improve maladaptive behaviors in their workplace, employers may be able to improve the stress levels and mental health of their lawyers.”

In other words, when employers make people feel valued as people, the people are healthier and less likely to leave. And while I’m no expert, my guess is that healthier employees who aren’t looking to leave make for better business.

Here’s to making people feel like people.

For additional tips on how to create a healthy work environment, check out the ABA Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers or, my favorite, the ABA Well-Being Toolkit in a Nutshell.

Wellness

1 Last year, and as part 1 of the same project that’s the subject of today’s post, the researchers released Stress, Drink, Leave: an examination of gender-specific risk factors that their findings on the factors that drive lawyers from the practice. As Bloomberg Law noted upon its release, the first report concluded that women were at a higher risk of leaving the profession for behavioral health reasons than men.

Related Videos & Posts

 Wellbeing Week in Law Videos

 Posts

Wellness Wednesday: 40 tips, with at least 1 for everyone.

When it comes to wellness and well-being, the legal profession has made progress.  The topic is now openly discussed, well, everywhere.

Whether at last week’s VBA Mid-Year Meeting, the lunch-time check-ins I’ve organized through the Bar Assistance Program, the VBA COVID-19 Committee’s conversation groups, or even something seemingly so small as the email I received yesterday, soon after a completing an in-house CLE for a local firm.  The CLE had covered a wide variety of issues related to legal ethics, but the follow-up email was, basically, “Mike, thank you.  How can our firm do more on wellness?”

Good question.

Despite the progress, it can be hard to do more, or even to get started.  One reason is that there is so much information so readily available that it can be overwhelming.  In my opinion, the trick is to approach the task as you would any other that, at first, seems daunting: one step at a time.

The ABA Journal recently published 40 wellness tips to help lawyers cope with job pressureI’m usually not a fan of lists that purport to show the way to faster marathons, stronger relationships, or whatever.  But I’m a huge fan of the ABA’s 40 wellness tips.

Each is from a different legal professional and each is easy to understand.  Not to be trite, but among the 40 tips, there’s one for everyone.  Whether beginning the journey to wellness or taking the next step, find the one that works for you and go from there.

wellness

Related Resources

Previous Wellness Wednesday Posts

On Wellness Wednesday, a lesson from my dad, Nandi and the Foo Fighters: find and experience awe.

One of the things I love the most about my dad is that he constantly finds awe. Meaning, he regularly remarks upon the people and things that amaze him.  Usually, I’ve not noticed these people and things, too busy going about my day with a laser-like focus on the unimportant.  When he prompts me, I’m not always as amazed as my dad.[1]  But I’m constantly in awe of his ability to observe the world with a child-like sense of wonder.  A wonder made readily apparent by the look in his eyes and tone of his voice.  It’s awesome!

Turns out, my dad is onto something.  “Awe” is healthy.

Tracy Kepler is a colleague who is as knowledgeable as anyone in the country on issues related to professional responsibility.  Tracy recently commented on a LinkedIn post that had shared this Washington Post article: Awe might be our most undervalued emotion. Here’s how to help children find it.  The article outlines the benefits of awe and shares tips on how to find and experience more of it. 

And it’s not just children who should be searching for awe. It’s all of us. Indeed, the article includes several comments from a psychologist who has “spent years studying the beneficial effects of awe on our physical, mental and emotional well-being.” 

The article makes clear that we find awe in different places. For some it’s in nature, for others in architecture & engineering, while others might experience it via human performance in sports and the arts. Per the article, noticing and allowing ourselves to experience awe is important to our well-being. In other words, while I might chuckle at some of the things that amaze my dad, it’s likely healthier to be more like my dad than to live a life unaware of the awesome that is all around me.

So, on Wellness Wednesday, remember that finding and experiencing awe can improve your well-being.

Again, to each their own awe.  But, to practice what I preach, I’ll share some awe that I experienced earlier this week as I wound down from a late practice by watching music videos.

This is Nandi Bushell:

Nandi

Nandi is 11.  Her wiki page is here. Please read it.  To summarize, Nandi is an incredibly talented drummer. Or, as Dave Grohl has said, Nandi is “the most badass drummer in the world.”  And if anyone would know, it’s Dave Grohl.

Grohl

For those who don’t know, Grohl was the drummer in Nirvana, one of America’s most iconic bands.  He went on to found, and continues to lead, the Foo Fighters, one of my favorite bands and one that is among the most popular and successful in U.S. history.  Keeping with today’s theme, I’m awed by Grohl’s talents and career.

Now, back to Nandi.

In 2019, Nandi posted a video of her version of Nirvana’s In Bloom. Grohl was among those who noticed.  Over the next year or so, Nandi and Grohl engaged in a virtual “drum off.”  Nandi won, with Grohl agreeing to let her play with the Foo Fighters on-stage during a concert. In August 2021, Nandi did exactly that. In front of more than 20,000 fans, Nandi sat in on drums as the Foo Fighters closed out a show with Everlong.  

Nandi crushed it.  It’s the most awesome thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.

There are several videos of Nandi’s performance online.  My favorite is here.  From a music perspective, there are others of better sound quality.  The reason it’s my favorite, however, has nothing to do with listening to the song.  It’s my favorite because it has the best view of Grohl and Nandi.  And no matter how many times I watch, I’m awed by each. 

For one, Nandi’s performance is incredible. For another, I’m awed by the awe that Grohl and Nandi find and experience in each other and in the moment.  Their awe, joy, love and respect are evident throughout, especially in Grohl’s introduction of Nandi and the look in Nandi’s eyes and on her face as she plays.     

To borrow a Foo Fighter lyric, it’s times like these we’d all do well to try to be like my dad, Nandi, and Dave Grohl.  Let yourself find and experience awe.

Foo-Fighters-Nandi

[1] I’m sure it’s tasty, but I don’t think you needed to make a special stop to show Patrick the salad bar you found.  It’s in a Wendy’s.

Previous Wellness Wednesday Posts

Ask the Question

Wellness Wednesday: Set communication boundaries with clients & opposing counsel

Yes, wellness includes the results of my first moot court competetion

Wellness Wednesday:  It’s okay to ask for help.  Bar Assistance will listen and support you

Wellness Wednesday: Set communication boundaries with clients and opposing counsel

Wellness Wednesday: Compassion Fatigue

Wellness Wednesday: A message from Justice Eaton

Jessica Burke: “Well People Do”

Wellness Wednesday: Schitt$ Creek and Paddles

Wellness Wednesday: Be Kind to Lawyers

Civility Matters. Especially Now.

Coping with COVID-19 Related Stress & Anxiety

Wellness Wednesday: Unplug

Well-Being is an Aspect of Competence

Wellness Wednesday: Survival Skills

Wellness Wednesday: Make time for what (and who) matters

Wellness Wednesday: Risk & Response (this one is about the report I mentioned from the Virginia State Bar)

Do summer your way

Wellness Wednesday: Meet Alison, Shireen, Samantha, and Alison

Reach Out, Check In

Wellness Wednesday: Mentor Someone

Wellness Wednesday: Joan Loring Wing

Wellness Wednesday: Law Day & Pro Bono

Get your sleep

Take a Chance on Being Nice

Attorney Wellness: We’ve Only Just Begun

Be Kind to a Lawyer Today

Be Nice to Someone Today

Wellness v. Well-Being

Wellness Wednesday: Meet Molly Gray

Wellness Wednesday: Judge Garland & My Cousin Vinny

Shakespeare, Pink Floyd and Wellness

Wellness Wednesday: You are not an impostor

Wellness Wednesday: “N O” is “O K”

Wellness Wednesday: Stop it!

Wellness Wednesday: Meet Jeff Messina

Lawyers Helping Lawyers Part 2

Lawyers Helping Lawyers: Keep it on the front burner

Lawyer Well-Being: a call to action

Anxiety, Stress & Work-Life Balance for Lawyers

Make time for what matters

Lawyer Wellness: resolve to find 6 minutes for yourself

108 is way too many

Workplace Happiness

Make Wellness a Habit

A pledge by legal employers to focus on lawyer well-being

Legal Ethics & the Water Cooler

Wellness Wednesday: Island Vines

Wellness Wednesday: on ponds, puffery and paltering

Wellness Wednesday: Neil Diamond, the Lock Screen, and National Mental Health Day for Law Students

 

Wellnes Wednesday: yes, wellness includes the results of this blog’s first ever moot court competition.

Wellness is a big tent.

Does it include understanding that it’s okay to reach out to the Bar Assistance Program?  Does it include prioritizing wellness within the profession’s workplaces?  Does it include CLEs on recognizing the signs of burnout?

Yes.

It includes all the serious issues associated with making the profession healthier.  Issues that I’ve blogged and spoken about for years.

But, today, I need a break.  Because wellness is also personal.  And, personally, beating the drum isn’t always what’s best for me.  My wellness includes finding the occasional harmless fun at the intersection of the law, legal ethics, and pop culture.

There’s nothing about this blog (and my job) that I enjoy more than reader responses to the Friday columns and quizzes.  Last Friday, I shared the story of the man who joined a search party that was trying to find himself.  Upon realizing that he was the “missing” person for whom the searchers were calling, the man replied, “I am here.”  Among others, BBC News and Sky News reported the story.

Melding the story with Seinfeld, I created the following scenario:

  • Kramer is the “missing” person.
  • Newman organizes the search party and posts a reward for whoever finds the missing Kramer.
  • George joins the search party, dutifully hollers “Kramer,” and is the person to whom Kramer responds, “I am here.”
  • George claims the reward.
  • Newman refuses to pay, insisting that Kramer was never missing and found the search party.

Then, with Rule 3.1 of the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct in mind, I challenged contestants to make their best non-frivolous arguments on behalf of either George or Newman.

Your replies made me smile and laugh.  So much so that as I drafted this post yesterday morning, I decided to save it for today, realizing that the smiles and laughs were wellness.

Many thanks to all who submitted replies!  Not one took more than a few seconds to read, but each made my day a brighter place. In reverse order of receipt and under headings that capture what made me a fan, here are my favorites.

Wellness

*****

I’m a sucker for Latin phrases – and even Newman deserves representation.

No contract was formed due to lack of a condition precedent—Kramer was never missing. Therefore, the contract is void ab initio. Neumann cannot pay any reward in this case.

I’m a huge fan of both honesty and brevity.

No time to do an argument for George, but I think he should get the reward.

The internal reference to an actual Seinfeld episode is gold!

I think George should get the reward.  Newman was clearly convinced that Kramer was missing or else he would not have formed a search party.  Once he reached that mental conclusion, in his mind he was prepared to issue the reward and his claiming that Kramer was never missing is disingenuous.  Although George knows Kramer, he had no role of interfering with Newman’s process and determination of concluding that Kramer was missing or that a reward should be issued for finding him.  George may have known that Kramer was in the search party by recognizing him (and he had no obligation to point that out if he did see him which maybe he didn’t) and it was his action that “found” Kramer.  Therefore, George is entitled to the reward.  George should not be rewarded for using the system as it was organized and established to work.  But then again, in a just world (although certainly which Seinfeld is not given their narcissism and selfishness), the entire search party would split the reward as they are really the ones that found him.  If they shared the reward, maybe Newman could buy some soup for everyone.  As long as he knows what he wants when it’s his turn to order.

Bonus for writing as a lawyer.  Infinity bonus for the disclaimer. As disciplinary counsel, I had occasion to represent lawyers who, sadly, should’ve made the disclaimer a permanent part of their signature line.

I represent George.  My client, in good faith and in reliance on Newman’s offer of a reward, participated in the search and, had he not called Kramer’s name, Kramer would not have called out “I am here” when he did.  Thus, George’s actions (joining the search party and calling Kramer’s name) were the actual cause of Kramer being found when he was.  But for George’s actions, Kramer would not have been found when he was.  Newman’s conditional offer was accepted and acted upon by George, who fully performed his side of the contract by locating Kramer.  Newman must pay my client the reward.  Newman’s refusal to pay and his claim that Kramer was never missing is frivolous, both in law and in fact, and his attorney is in violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Counsel’s claim that Kramer was not lost because “Kramer found the search party” is a blatant misrepresentation of the fact that Kramer responded to George’s call.  Thus, counsel’s factual claim is frivolous.  And counsel cites to no legal support for this theory.  Indeed, the well-established concepts of contract law render it clear that an offer was accepted and my client performed his part of the contract.  If Newman’s counsel is arguing that the meaning of “find” was ambiguous, any ambiguity must be resolved against the offeror.

(Disclaimer: Of course, this is not based upon actual legal research! Thus, whether my argument is frivolous is certainly in question!)

*****

If you’re still reading, there’s nothing wrong with having taken a minute to inject a bit of humor and entertainment into the workday.

Anybody who disagrees needs a bigger tent.

Wellness for all!

 

Venue, the Electric Slide, and Impostor Syndrome: thoughts on intellectual engagement & growth.

Welcome to Wednesday of Well-Being Week in Law.

Today’s topic is Intellectual Well-Being, with the mantra “Engage and Grow.”  We’re focusing on striving for continuous intellectual engagement and growth in our work and personal lives.

Here’s a video in which I go into more detail.  The video ranges from my personal (and borderline frivolous) engagement and growth – venue in federal criminal cases and mastering the Electric Slide – to a serious discussion of Impostor Syndrome.

I’d love to learn your thoughts & strategies for intellectual growth.  Please consider joining this Zoom discussion at noon to share & listen as others share theirs!

 Links to material referenced in my video are below:

Engage & Grow!

  • An article in Elemental on the connection between curiosity and well-being.
  • An article in Courthouse News about a 9th Circuit opinion that involves an international arms dealer and proper venue in federal criminal cases.
  • Joanna Litt’s letter to The American Lawyer about her husband’s suicide.
  • Neha Sampat’s post in the ABA Journal calling on the profession to address Impostor Syndrome.

well-being-week_LOGO-2021-Horizontal_EB-1024x547

Related Posts:

Wellness Wednesday: a message from Justice Eaton.

I would ask you to remember that incivility is not advocacy, nor is it effective lawyering.”

~ Harold Eaton, Associate Justice, Vermont Supreme Court

********

I’ve blogged & spoken often on the connection between civility and attorney well-being. Recently, I’ve expressed concern that an erosion of the former is negatively impacting the latter.

Last week, the Vermont Supreme Court held its annual admission ceremony. Following the administration of the attorney oath, Justice Eaton delivered remarks that touched upon civility, attorney well-being, and the impact one has on the other. In short, a reminder that we must take care of ourselves, take care of each other, and that civility & courtesy are at our endeavor’s core.

The YouTube video of the ceremony is here.  Justice Eaton begins at the 9:33 mark.   Otherwise, the full text of the speech is below.  It would bode well for our collective well-being if even those of us no longer new to Vermont’s legal profession took time to consider Justice Eaton’s message.

wellness

*****

Thank you, Chief and welcome to all the admittees, their families and friends. The Justices of the Supreme Court are very pleased to be with you today, even though we must do so remotely. We extend our warm welcome to the legal profession to those of you who have recently been admitted, and to the Vermont bar for you and for any attorneys previously admitted in other states. On behalf of the entire Supreme Court, I congratulate all of you on your great achievement. We wish could be with you in person, but the challenges of these times make that impossible. We hope to meet each of you soon under sunnier skies.

As new lawyers, you are entering the profession at a time unlike any other. This is a period of great challenge, great change and great adaptation in the world and in our profession. As attorneys, it is up to us to meet those challenges and make the changes and adaptations necessary to protect and preserve the rule of law and the system of justice which is built upon it. It is a heavy responsibility, but I know that you will each do your part.

I am sure few of you know the exact path your legal career will take. Regardless of what your path may be, you have the opportunity, whether actively practicing law or not, to make a difference on big stages and on small ones. Especially in these times, in the face of a global pandemic and when it seems that the rule of law is and has been under attack, there is so much to be done. This is such an important time for lawyers, as we work to preserve our legal system and our country’s and the world’s respect for it.

I hope that you will never forget the exhilaration you felt when you learned you passed the bar exam, the joy of that moment and of this day, and, as importantly, the awesome responsibility that comes with being a lawyer. When times get tough reflect on the sacrifices you and your family have made to get you to this place. It is no small achievement.

It has been my privilege to be a member of the Vermont bar for over forty years. During that time, I have made some observations, some of which I would like to share with you in the hope you may find them useful.

Vermont is a small state with a small bar.  The anonymous lawyer is a rarity here. You will become known in your community and in the legal profession. As you start with clean slates, you get to write the first chapter in your “I’m a Vermont attorney” book; make it one which sets the tone for the chapters to be written in the years to come—many of which will be penned by others based upon their dealings with you.

Vermont’s small size can work to your advantage. Ask questions of experienced lawyers you meet. You will find most, if not all of them, very willing to share their knowledge with you.

Learn from your experiences. One of the best things about being an attorney is the opportunity to continue to learn and to grow. Your legal education is never completed, there is always something new to learn. The day you think you’ve “got it” about being an attorney is probably the first day you begin to “lose it.”

In order to win the trust of your clients or your employers it is not necessary that you have all the answers. What is important is that you know what you know and recognize what you do not know. A good lawyer doesn’t have all the answers at their fingertips but has the ability to find the answers and the humility to know when research is necessary. Despite your best efforts, you will make mistakes. When you do, learn from them. Strive to be a better lawyer tomorrow than you were today.

You have received a bar admission which reads that you are an “attorney and counsellor at law.”  Your counselling role with your clients is just as important, if not more so, than your substantive knowledge. What you can do for a client is often different from what you ought to do for them or what they are at first urging you to do. Part of what you bring to your clients is your judgment, not just your legal acumen. Although the final decision may be your client’s, do not withhold your counsel, even when it may not be what the client wants to hear.

The legal system has been called an adversary system. But being a good advocate for your client does not mean that you can write a more stinging rebuke than your opposing counsel. The lawyer who gets the best results for the client is not necessarily the one who knows or uses the most adjectives.

The electronic world has changed the practice of law in many good ways and in a few bad ones. It remains to be seen what the impact of remote hearings and yes, even remote trials, will be. When we come out of this pandemic one thing is certain—-the practice of law will be different than it was when we went into to it. We communicate so often now by rapid and remote means, rather than in person. This lends itself well to incivility, which has become more prevalent in recent years. I would ask you to remember that incivility is not advocacy, nor is it effective lawyering.  The Vermont Bar Directory contains the Guidelines of Professional Courtesy which the Bar Association membership adopted in 1989. I commend them to you.

If you are in a contested matter, learn to win with humility and to lose with grace. Remember: the other side feels as strongly about their position as you and your client do about yours.

As you start this chapter of your legal career, challenge yourself to be good stewards of the law. Our legal system works because people put their trust in it. Make it your goal to uphold that trust and to further it, so that many years from now, upon your retirement, people will say that you were a good lawyer and an honest person.

Being a lawyer is difficult; the work is hard, and the demands are many. The Supreme Court, in connection with the VBA, continues to work on important issues concerning attorney wellness. We see all too often lawyers neglecting their own physical, emotional or mental well-being, often with sad, if not disastrous, results. Keep a distance between your client’s problems and your personal life. You cannot serve your clients or your profession if you do not take care of your own mental and physical health.

That starts with taking the time to decompress. The practice of law is as draining as it is rewarding. You have to keep sacred the time to do the things you enjoy and the things that help you to relax. Believe it or not, in the not-too-distant past, there was a time without cell phones. Remember to turn yours off from time to time. It is not your responsibility to be available to your clients 24/7 even if they think that it is. If, despite your best efforts you find yourself becoming overwhelmed, reach out to the Bar Association’s lawyer assistance program or to a colleague for help.

Justice must always mean more than who can shout the longest or the loudest. We all must ensure that the weak as well as the strong are heard; that the poor as well as the rich have a playing field that is level for everyone; and that we as attorneys do no falsehood nor delay any person for lucre or malice. These are the things which serve to maintain public confidence in the legal system. It is our responsibility and our duty to fight for these things with all our combined strength every day of our legal career. The challenges of today will give way to the challenges of tomorrow, but we must always rise to meet them, whatever they may be.

The legal profession in all its varied aspects is bigger than any one of us, but its vitality, and the public’s confidence in it depends upon all of us. Each of us as attorneys have a shared responsibility to make the legal profession all that it can be and all that it needs to be.

As you begin your career as a Vermont attorney, I leave you with this quote from “A Commencement for Scoundrels” by Samuel Hazo:

I wish you what I wish

myself: hard questions

and the nights to answer them,

the grace of disappointment

and the right to seem the fool

for justice. That’s enough.

Cowards might ask for more.

Heroes have died for less.

Thank you, welcome to the Vermont bar, and good luck to you all.