Keith Lee

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day life of a lawyer. And the longer you are a lawyer, the more it will come to define you – if you let it. But it is a limiting definition, even for the best and brightest of lawyers. Take Marcus Tullius Cicero, likely the most famous lawyer in history. Upon being acclaimed for his skills as a lawyer, it is said that Cicero remarked:

“And yet he often desired his friends not to call him orator, but philosopher, because he had made philosophy his business, and had only used rhetoric as an instrument for attaining his objects in public life. But the desire of glory has great power in washing the tinctures of philosophy out of the souls of men, and in imprinting the passions of the common people, by custom and conversation, in the minds of those that take a part in governing them, unless the politician be very careful so to engage in public affairs as to interest himself only in the affairs themselves, but not participate in the passions that are consequent to them.”

– Plutarch, Cicero, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (c. 75-100 AD), John Dryden translation

Here we have the greatest lawyer in all of Rome, insisting that he wished to be remembered as a philosopher — a thinker — not a lawyer. Being a lawyer was part of who he was; it did not define him….

Today’s lawyers increasingly pigeonhole themselves into the trap that Cicero spoke of. Being a lawyer can be a time-consuming process with long hours and dark work that eat into one’s personal life. Eventually it can seem as though being a lawyer is the central defining characteristic of an individual. This is further exacerbated by the monetary rewards, public respect, and admiration from one’s colleagues that lawyers can develop over several years of successful practice. But eventually it will become limiting.

A career should not be one’s defining characteristic; rather it should merely a part of one’s whole being. There is more to life than the practice of law. And a lawyer hoping to have a rich life should keep Cicero’s desires on how he wished to be defined in mind. You need to have interests and hobbies far removed from the practice of law. It will widen you as a person, help grow new relationships, and actually help you as a lawyer. You will be a more interesting person. You will be  able to draw analogies and provide new metaphors from experiences in your life away from law.

Take dance lessons, attend cooking classes, join a running group. Take time to fill your life with things other than the practice of law.  And when you join these groups and attend these classes, shut up about being a lawyer. Jobs will surely come up in conversations with new people, but then let it go. Focus on the task at hand and the people you are with. And turn off (or at least ignore) your damn phone as best you can. You can’t form relationships with people in front of you if you’re too busy keeping abreast of someone’s activity in a city a 1,000 miles away from you.

There was an article in the Financial Times a couple of years ago that touched on the problems presented by smart phones when having conversations:

[The woman] was finding it hard to have meaningful relationships. Technology was partly to blame: “Sometimes you feel the BlackBerry is like a third person,” she said. This was a generational issue, too. Her nieces and nephews barely looked up from their gadgets when she entered a room. Another new acquaintance agreed, and described how Google had blocked off avenues of conversation with her boyfriend. “Before we would argue about this or that, but now we just look it up on Wikipedia,” she said.

Modern internet communication technology has enabled us to to live in a hyper-connected society – but it’s worthless if we can’t connect with those immediately around us. The knee-jerk reaction is to blame technology – “Oh it’s those blasted iPhones and the Googles!!” But technology is just a tool.

Having an iPhone on hand doen’t automatically turn you into a introverted prick. Modern communication technology is a multiplier. It enhances and magnifies how we communicate. If you’re the type of person is self-involved, an iPhone is only going to make you more self-involved.

People don’t need a class on “how to have a conversation” — they need a class on “how to pull your head out of your ass.” As was noted by in the Financial Times article:

The basics remain the same as when Cicero became the first scholar to write down some rules…

  • Speak clearly;
  • speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn;
  • do not interrupt;
  • be courteous;
  • deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones;
  • never criticize people behind their backs;
  • stick to subjects of general interest;
  • do not talk about yourself;
  • and, above all, never lose your temper.

Is that really so difficult? Is there something there that is so monumentally difficult that people actually need assistance?

Interacting with other people is not about you. It’s a chance to interact, share, and grow from those around you. It’s an opportunity to learn. There is little in life as satisfying as a stimulating conversation among friends. Again, Cicero:

To begin with, how can life be worth living, to use the words of Ennius, which lacks that repose which is to be found in the mutual good will of a friend? What can be more delightful than to have some one to whom you can say everything with the same absolute confidence as to yourself? Is not prosperity robbed of half its value if you have no one to share your joy?

Laelius de Amicitia

If your phone is such a problem, turn it off! Leave it at the house. Trash the phone if you have to. There’s nothing so important that you can’t devote a few uninterrupted hours with friends. But again, the phone is not the problem — it’s people’s lack of discipline to know when to step away from it.

A couple of years ago, I spent St. Patrick’s Day like I always have for the past nine years, dawn to dusk at my local Irish bar with friends. Same group every year. But we were down a man as he was in Afghanistan. He managed to get a phone call to us during the day (middle of the night for him) and let us know he was missing us. So what did we do? We spent the rest of the day taking pictures and video and emailing them to him and he responded as best he could. We used technology to reach out, connect, and have a conversation with a friend thousands of miles away from us because he couldn’t be there that day. Our day was better because we could share it with our friend — but not to the point that we ignored one another.

People don’t need a class on conversation. They just need the common sense to be a decent person, put other people first, and stick their ego in the back seat. Get that down and you’ll be have as many genuine, meaningful conversations as you’d like.

You’ll be a better human being, and by extension, a better lawyer.


Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at keith.lee@hamerlawgroup.com or on Twitter at @associatesmind.


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