American Lawyer, Eastern Mindset

MarbleandtheSculptorcover-683x1024I have long found much to admire about Keith Lee’s writing in his well-regarded Associate’s Mind blog. His voice is intelligent, but accessible. His tone is informed, but not condescending. His consistent message about the state of our profession is tough, but not without optimism.

I was pleased to find all of these qualities and more in his recently published first book, The Marble And The Sculptor.

What I particularly appreciate about Lee’s thoughts, as expressed in his words, is how they are often infused with precious pearls of Eastern wisdom. It is refreshing, at a time when the business of law threatens to eclipse what was once regarded as a noble profession, to encounter a fellow lawyer who strives to penetrate deeper into what it means to undertake a legal education, to prepare for and pass the bar examination and, finally, to carve out one’s own place within our profession. The decision to commit to this profession is a serious one, and Lee invariably addresses these issues with unflinching candor.

As an undergraduate student of Western philosophy, I occasionally flirted in a superficial way with Eastern thinking on issues of metaphysics, epistemology and religion. But I never let my guard down or did the work necessary to really grasp the Eastern mind. Again, when my wife and I traveled throughout Asia during our sabbatical, I was confronted and tried to learn about the Eastern religions, the teachings of the Buddha, the Hindu belief system and others, including radical Jainism. But regardless of my immersion, those teachings remained essentially foreign to my Western-bred mind.

Lee forces me to revisit the Eastern mind, but to apply that way of thinking to my own chosen profession as a lawyer attempting to practice here, in America. As the rapidly growing blawgosphere demonstrates, pretty much anybody can write about law. The difference in reading Lee is not only that he has something to say, but what he says carries a much larger, often universal import. His how-to manual for newly-minted lawyers would not require much revision to serve as a how-to manual for success in any career, or even in life. I believe it is his Eastern mindset that gives Lee’s words their added wisdom, their depth.

Much of Lee’s advice for succeeding both as a law student and a lawyer comes down to one quality: discipline. It’s not an accident that Lee came to law school, as he puts it, “a bit later in life” at twenty-seven. After college, he spent a year as a runner/project assistant/gopher at a large law firm. Yet, even after this experience cemented his certainty that he wanted to be a lawyer, he did not enter law school right away, but instead moved to Canada to train as an ichi deshi to a shihan (master) for nearly a year. He briefly describes this experience as

” . . . crazy and awesome and painful and beautiful — one of the best and most difficult experiences in my life. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to encapsulate in words. Sleeping in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement of the dojo on a thin mat. Subsisting primarily on rice, vegetables and PB&Js (okay, and beer on occasion). Training five to eight hours a day, five to six days a week. Bleeding toes and cracked ribs. Scrubbing toilets and washing mats. Friendships gained and lost. Intense spiritual moments of training and camaraderie, intense times of loneliness and introspection. No TV, no movies, no cellphone.” (Id. at 97-98.)

Not exactly Club Med. But perfect training for the mental discipline needed to become a successful professional. Describing the training during this period, Lee writes:

“After the lecture there would be an hour or so breakdown on one technique, perhaps one movement. A pivot or a shift of hips or moving into position against your partner. A single movement could be repeated hundreds of times. Occasionally I would be told the movement was correct. Mostly I would be told that the movement was wrong.

It was aggravating. It was boring. It was difficult. Deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying. After the tenth repetition of a movement I would grow bored. At the thirtieth, my mind started to wander. At the sixtieth I was barely concentrating. At the hundredth, my mind had become still and there was only the movement.” (Id. at 98.)

This focus on discipline as the key to growth as a lawyer is echoed throughout The Marble And The Sculptor. From one’s selection of law school electives, to developing key relationships, to balancing the competing demands of family and law school and, later, law practice, he returns again and again to the notion of discipline. Lee writes:

“Every lawyer, every person you meet, was once young, naive, and ignorant as you are. It is now your personal responsibility–no one else’s–to mature and develop into a competent lawyer who is fit to be trustworthy of a client’s problems.” (Id. at 21.)

Another vein that travels throughout the book is the notion of humility, which I believe also finds its genesis in his Eastern studies. There is a tendency, after you’ve devoted years of your life and a small fortune to finish law school, excelled on law review or moot court or whatever, to take yourself pretty seriously as a brand new lawyer. Lee gently reminds readers that, as new lawyers, you don’t know shit.

But his purpose isn’t to cut baby lawyers down. Rather, Lee is interested in teaching the kind of humility that is found in Eastern thought and easily seen in the martial arts, in the interest of helping you on your path to becoming a professional. He writes:

“After obtaining my black belt, did I consider myself a master? When I received my JD and passed the Bar, did I consider myself an expert lawyer? Of course not. They’re ridiculous propositions.

Traditionally, a black belt has only meant one thing: you were now considered a serious student. Everything before was playtime. Training wheels. Getting a black belt only signifies that you have mastered the basics and are ready to begin dedicated study. The same is true with a JD. Having a JD doesn’t indicate mastery of the law. It’s merely a signifier that you are probably ready to step onto the playing field. What follows is up to you.” (Id. at 102-03 (emphasis in original).)

Readers of Lee’s blog, as well as his new book, quickly learn that his choice of title for the blog, Associate’s Mind, was no accident, but reflects this essentially Eastern attitude of humility toward our profession. He writes:

“So, during my final year of law school, I started a legal blog titled Associate’s Mind, a play on words of a concept in Zen known as shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind.’ A ‘beginner’s mind’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

I wanted to adopt this mindset in my practice of law. The idea that an associate should be flexible and open to new ideas and processes, while being mindful of the guidance of those who have tread the road before them. ” (Id. at xii.)

I encourage you to read Lee’s new book, and to subscribe and follow Associate’s Mind. You will find there pearls of the kind of wisdom our profession desperately needs at this difficult time.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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