'Being a Stoic Lawyer'

Being a Stoic Lawyer

Paul Bryson

 When I started the Stoic Lawyer blog, I didn’t realize how often those two words are used together. Unfortunately for promoting the blog, a Google search for “Stoic lawyer” produces a great number of results that have nothing to do with Stoicism in the classical or philosophical sense:


The search results suggest that being “stoic” is something typical for lawyers, at least in entertainment. But it is the wrong kind of stoic for me, both normatively and descriptively. Those lawyers are all described as being emotionless or capable of seeming so—near robotic protectors and relaters of their client’s goals. That same couldn’t be said for me and I wouldn’t want it to be. I’m a different kind of Stoic lawyer. Instead of striving to be a passionless automaton, I work to determine how the insights and teachings of the classical Stoic philosophers can improve me and my dealings, professionally and personally.

As a starting point, I start with the four qualities Zeno suggested Stoics should cultivate:

  1. Wisdom – knowledge of what is      Good, Bad, or Indifferent
  2. Courage – wisdom concerned with      endurance
  3. Temperance – wisdom concerned      with acquisition
  4. Justice – wisdom concerned with      distribution

I believe that each of those qualities has the power to improve me as a practicing attorney in one way or another. As I strive to become a Wise, Courageous, Temperate, and Just lawyer, I believe I’ll become a better lawyer.

Wisdom – In distinguishing between what is Good, Bad, or Indifferent, I find it helpful to think of Epictetus’ division of things between what is up to us and what is not up to us. As translated by Elizabeth CarterArrian recorded that Epictetus said, “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” Notice that the first category of things are items where a person’s exercise of the will can lead to virtue (or evil, which is the absence of virtue); the second category of things are all indifferent–they do not aid or harm the search for virtue because they are beyond the power of the will.

This influences my priorities. I think reason dictates that I spend my time focusing on taking the right approach to the first category. As it relates to my profession, the first category includes my composure, treatment of clients, opponents, employees, and third parties, how I maintain the confidences of clients, how I manage my office, and how I act to uphold duties of competence, loyalty, and diligence.  By focusing on those things, instead of on things I cannot control, I believe I stand to gain not only virtue and tranquillity, but possibly a number of material “goods”:

  • Juries will not be distracted      by unprofessionalism,
  • opponents and third parties      will be more receptive to my arguments and proposals,
  • clients will feel      well-represented and will be more likely to pay on time and refrain from      making disciplinary or malpractice complaints.
  • I likely will also develop a network      of referral sources and colleagues who feel a genuine connection and      respect for me.
  • My reputation in the community      will be that of a lawyer who does both well and good.
  • As an additional benefit, I      will not be driven into unprofessional conduct by seeking money or results      at the expense of my professional integrity.

Courage — Initially, it is important to notice that Courage starts with Wisdom. That means that the focus remains, at least in part, on identifying and discriminating between the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.  Courage is the particularization of Wisdom to matters of endurance.

But what does endurance have to do with being a lawyer? The Classical Stoic writers frequently talked about a parade of horrors just around the corner—slavery, oppression by a murderous emperor, death by disease or violence. Most of those risks have been minimized by modernity; even illness, which remains part of the human condition, is less likely to result in death than it was in the days of Marcus Aurelius. But just like Marcus, modern lawyers are worried. They aren’t worried about the Germanic tribesmen on the other side of the river, but about the student loan debt collectors who may call next week. They don’t fear losing a limb or child to illness, but they dread losing their dreams of becoming the lawyer they went to law school to become. Either way, they share the emperor’s feeling of powerlessness.

To summon their Courage, these lawyers need to remind themselves that the circumstances they face now or what they have done in the past cannot be changed. They can only affect the future. As for their present circumstances, lawyers should consider the limits of those circumstances. As Marcus noted (in Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X, Section III.),  a person will either survive his circumstances or will not. Stated another way, either a person will endure or she will not. To a Stoic, the mere fact of survival or death from those circumstances is indifferent. Ultimately, survival is not within a person’s control. The key is to remember to exercise Wisdom concerning those circumstances while they persist and concerning the course toward the future.

Courage impacts my practice by assisting me to carry on when things are difficult. I recently had a period of underemployment. Wisdom instructed me that underemployment was indifferent and temporary. Either I would find more opportunity, or I would perish (either physically or as a lawyer). I preferred to find more opportunity. So instead of sharing my bitterness at the opportunities that should have been given to me or blogging about how law school is a scam or suing my alma mater for failing to find me a job, I spent time networking, participating in pro bono clinics, and working in a nonlawyer capacity while developing plans for my next step.

To me, that is the lesson of Courage. It is the wisdom to choose when to keep trying the same thing, when to try something else, or when to stop trying at all. It is also the wisdom to understand when the result is indifferent and when it is Good to keep trying anyway.

Temperance – Just as with Courage, Temperance begins with Wisdom. Instead of endurance, however, Temperance is Wisdom applied to matters of acquisition. For me, that focus on acquisition applies equally to the search for more and to the measurement of what I have already obtained.

As a lawyer, Temperance is important to me in a few different ways. First, Temperance cautions me to pay attention to what it is I am seeking to acquire; is it Good, Bad, or Indifferent? Stoic teaching is that I should be spending time seeking the Good and avoiding the Bad, even at the expense of the indifferent. Wealth is one of those classically indifferent things, as is power. Stoicism influences me, therefore, to sacrifice the pursuit of wealth or power to pursue virtue; although it would be perfectly acceptable to have wealth or power if they were available. For that reason, money or influence is never a reason for using a strategy or methods that would lead me to abandon virtue, even for a moment. Temperance is a constant guard against that temptation.

Second, Temperance tells me to pay attention to whether what I have is enough. If it is, then there is no pressing need to seek more. As a lawyer, Temperance reminds me not to seek to represent more clients than I can handle or represent fairly. In turn, that helps assure that I can allocate the necessary time to represent the clients I have to the best of my abilities. By doing that, my reputation and referral base will naturally grow.

Justice – When I was in law school, an experienced lawyer remarked to me that lawyers are essentially in the business of moving resources from one column into another. On some level that is true of every practice area, assuming a broad enough definition of resources. Whether the resource is money, time, political/social influence, or something else, lawyers spend most of their time trying to cause a resource to flow in the direction of their clients or to prevent a resource from flowing away from their clients.

Justice is the use of wisdom about that distribution. In that sense, focusing on justice reminds me that the distribution of resources is often outside of my control. Although I have a duty to use my best efforts (both as a lawyer and as a Stoic), I have to face the reality that I don’t control the outcome. I also have to face the reality that the outcome will rarely be something that makes my client believe that everyone is in the position he or she “deserves.” Justice aids with that because it keeps me focused on what is Good, Bad, and Indifferent about the distribution or redistribution of resources. By focusing on pursuing the Good, avoiding the Bad, and living with or without the Indifferent, I can better reconcile myself to the fact that there are days my clients lose when I think they should have won or win when I think they should have lost.

In the end, although Stoic thought is the key for me to being happy in a stressful profession, I think what helps in general is having a philosophy of life. I have a framework through which I can interpret my universe and experiences and through which I can feel both control over the important portions of my life and satisfaction at my lack of control over other portions. By taking that philosophy seriously, even before I have all the answers or understanding, I have at least a strong mast to which I can lash myself securely against the tempests and siren calls of human experience.

More about the author: Paul Bryson is a lawyer living and working in the Greater Columbus Metropolitan Area. He has been interested in Stoic philosophy since encountering the works of Seneca as a high school Latin student. He blogs at the Stoic Lawyer.

6 thoughts on “'Being a Stoic Lawyer'”

  1. Dear Paul,

    As a professor of law and former politician I am happy and proud that our (legal) profession is not entirely lost in the wild jungle of ”patocracy” (the rise of sociopaths and psychopaths, e.g. Wolf of Wall Street, Le Capital), ”corpocracy” (the power of money, turbo-capitalism) and ”partitocracy” (tho destructive power of political parties).

    Many thanks for sharing your invaluable thoughts and congratulates, I have already subscribed to your impressive blog.

    Best regards from Slovenia,

    Marko

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