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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Happy Moment

From Washington Lawyer, December 2004

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator A successful football coach said that happiness in life is 10 percent of what happens and 90 percent of the reaction to it. In other words happiness is 90 percent within your control. The mind is the ultimate judge of reality. Nothing happens until we decide what happens. Would a busy lawyer with a demanding practice filled with uncertainty adopt the 10/90 ratio? Before doing the math let’s try to define happiness.

Lin Yutang, in his book Importance of Living, writes about happiness as the Chinese sages define it. Lin has read the old scrolls. He has looked at the pictures of the contented old man sitting in his boat gazing into the mists that conceal distant snow-covered mountains where wisdom and contentment reside. Lin concludes that happiness is associated with a proper functioning of the biological. It is a matter of digestion. It is taking a stone from the shoe.

He says, “In this world of ours, happiness is very often negative, the complete absence of sorrow or mortification or bodily ailment.” No creditor at the door and nobody sick is happiness enough for the wise. Lin supports his statement by the testimony of his expert witness, Chin Shengt’an, a 17th-century Chinese writer who enumerated 33 happy moments of his life. Here are two selections:

I wake up in the morning and seem to hear someone in the house sighing and saying that last night someone died. I immediately ask to find out who it is, and learn that it is the sharpest, most calculating fellow in town. Ah, is this not happiness?

I am drinking on a winter’s night, and suddenly note the night has turned extremely cold. I push open the window and see that snowflakes come down the size of a palm and there are already three or four inches of snow on the ground. Ah, is this not happiness?

In Chinese paintings of happy moments a snowstorm often plays a part. A snowstorm figured in one of my happy moments, a happy moment that only a procrastinating lawyer (is there any other kind?) can fully appreciate.

On a Sunday afternoon in gray November I was in the library preparing instructions in a case to be tried Monday. These instructions should have been worked up months ago. The legal issues in the case were tangled around knotty concepts of anticipatory breach of contract, mitigation of damages, and failure to perform. The authorities were contradictory. The leading cases were long in the opinion and short in the logic. The dissents set forth my position and cited cases in old reports where the views of the court were set forth in page after page of double columnar agate type.

A sense of panic seized me. I realized I would be in the library for hours just reading the cases. It would take hours more to summarize them so that I could defend the convoluted instructions that were necessary in order for me to prevail.

I glance out the window. The skies are dark. Snow is falling. I arraign myself for not preparing this case when it could have been done leisurely and carefully. I should have read the cases over and then discussed them with my partner. I should have refined draft after draft of the key instructions. That is the proper way to prepare a case such as this. I will never let myself get into this trap again. As the snow picked up, I thought that maybe the snowstorm would become so heavy that the courts would have to close down. But this was a vain hope. The snow was mixed with rain.

My thoughts were interrupted by the librarian. He whispered that I was wanted on the telephone. It must be a mistake, I thought. I walked over to the librarian’s desk. I picked up the phone. It was for me. It was my opponent. His client had decided to accept our offer. The case was settled. I was free. I could leave Williston unread and Corbin on the desk unopened. I could walk amid the snowflakes kicking up the slush, carefree and easy of conscience.

I entered that call in my good-luck escrow account. Each time I make such an entry I am concerned that I am drawing against an account in danger of an overdraft. Is there any way of replenishing the good-luck account? There may be. Do something good for somebody and do it anonymously. For instance, you are retained in a case where your adversary, an overworked, good person, let the statute of limitations run on his client’s case. If you plead the statute, he will be sued for malpractice. You convince your client not to plead it. You try the case strictly on the merits and win it. Ah, is this not happiness?

Now let’s get back to the percentages. The 10/90 percentage is reasonable when it comes to the usual events of the day. But what about the lawyer who is in a losing streak, and business is slow? Is he not permitted an adjustment? How about 40/60?

We lawyers aspire to remain serene despite the fact that we immerse ourselves in other people’s problems. Add to it our own problems. And add that the trial practice requires our adversary to make trouble for us. I would say 40/60 is about right for what happened to me last week.

The football coach was preaching Stoicism. It teaches that we have been given the gift that distinguishes us from animals. We are self-aware. We have reason. We determine how we arrange our life. We will not let ourselves be carried away by what is transient. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman emperor, saw life from the top. Epictetus, the Stoic Greek slave, saw life from the bottom. They both agree that happiness is equivalent to a philosophy of cheerful disenchantment.

Jacob A. Stein can be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.