Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Secret Lives of Lawyers

Lawyers live secret lives. And they live secretive lives.

Secretiveness does not, itself, make for a secret life. We can be secretive ABOUT something and still live our life out in the open for all to see. Look at Dick Cheney, who admitted that he thought torture was fine, but will never tell you whether the U.S. ever tortured anybody. (I admit that it is questionable how open Cheney's life is to others, but I use the torture admission as an illustration.)

But for lawyers, their secret lives arise out of their secretiveness. They cannot tell anyone the better part of what they know, see, think, or experience. The obvious reason for this is that lawyers are required by professional ethics to retain confidences and to plan strategy without giving it away to opponents. Like soldiers, lawyers' entire existence is lived on a battleground. Everyone who is not a comrade must be treated like an enemy.

All of us have secret lives.

Henry David Thoreau wrote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."

Secret lives, by their very nature, must create some degree of desperation, because what is secret is alone and we are social animals. We do not live in vacuums. We need each other; we cannot achieve anything without others. Those who think they go it completely alone are still riding on the unseen wings, or trying to escape from the shadow, of those who came before.

Lawyers, however, (like spies) not only must take many secrets to their graves but cannot even let loose a sigh of complaint about anything to anyone. The loneliness of law is mitigated by the amazing closeness generated through communication with co-counsel, which creates strong bonds that can almost feel like love.

Nonetheless, nobody knows the human being behind the attorney face.

And most good attorneys learn how to carry poker faces. Long ago, I learned to figure out which eye to look at when conversing with someone. I realized that people have a "public eye" and a private one. They (nearly always) prefer you to look at one of their eyes and not the other. One eye reveals more than the other. The public eye might be open and inviting while the private eye is full of anxiety and sorrow. This discrepancy between the expression of the two eyes is revealing about the internal life and experiences of the person.

Good lawyers learn how to look you straight in the eye unflinchingly, with BOTH eyes equally, so you can see nothing about them inside.

What does this do to a person? I mean, what does it do to the life of the lawyer? I think something must die inside that person to live in such isolation. Perhaps this is also why lawyers are not known to be the most sympathetic persons. While they deal with the most intimate details of their clients' lives and must grasp the meaning of those details within the sum of those lives, they cannot "get involved emotionally." What a toll this has to take on the soul of the lawyer! While they learn to see and comprehend the lives of others, they must remain detached and aloof.

This aloofness is not the same as what I've written about elsewhere with respect to the Author Self. The Author Self is the part of the writer that knows the whole story which you will write, knows all the details of the lives of your characters, but also knows none of it can be changed. While lawyers gain a similar sort of understanding about human nature, their aloofness is more total because the Author Self is only part of a writer; it is not her whole life. An attorney learns not to share even with her husband, children, best friend.

It is true that writers must also learn, as Maria Rainer Rilke wrote, not to "torment [people] with your doubts and don't frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn't be able to comprehend." Letters to a Young Poet, Letter Four. But writers have the joy of telling the truth -- their truths -- within their stories, even if they cannot trouble their acquaintances with their daily concerns.

Lawyers live both more distantly and more closely to others. Yet the isolation can take its toll. So instead of reviling lawyers, we should strive to love and understand their lonely existence and (for the lawyers who actually do take their obligation seriously) their courageous strength to live that lonely life well.

No comments: