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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: A Transcendental State

From Washington Lawyer, January/February 2000

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorLast week I attended a meeting at a New York law firm that is the envy of the profession. The waiting room, if such an elegant room can be so identified, is what Louis Auchincloss had in mind when he wrote of the old, dignified, powerful Wall Street law firms. Everything in quiet, understated, good taste. The receptionist directed me across a well-worn Oriental rug to a leather club chair. On the way I passed a John Singer Sargent watercolor.

There was in the room a distinctive upper-class aroma. Joseph Alsop has described it as the aroma of the homes of old wealth. "I believe the secret was beeswax, rather lavishly used year ’round to polish floors and furniture, plus a great many flowers from the summer gardens."

There were brochures on the table next to the chair. Inside the brochure was a brief history of the firm going back to the late nineteenth century. Then, to my astonishment, I saw a listing of recent cases the firm had won in the courts. Here was the proof, if proof was needed, that in these times all law firms must meet the competition the old-fashioned way, by shouting out how great they are. They must shout loud enough to be heard by the general counsel of an oligopolist. A general counsel shopping for legal services has the power to put a firm on easy street. Nothing can be left to chance in such matters, and if it is advertisement that is required, then advertisement it shall be. Keep repeating how great it is to be great, how many big cases have been won, and how many honors have been collected.

And now let me tell you of a strange experience that is related to the New York experience. After returning to Washington I met with a prospective client. In such a meeting I would be doing in my own way what the New York firm did in its brochure. I would be looking for openings to refer to cases won, books written, important people who might be called upon, my comprehensive knowledge of the relevant procedure, and a general capacity for omniscience. But none of that happened.

It was as if I were at the Smithsonian Institution in the year 2050 looking at a display of historical figures behind glass. The setting was a lawyer’s office in the long ago 1990s. A person labeled a client is intent on giving what is called attorney-client information to a person labeled a lawyer who appears to be listening to what is said.

In my out-of-body state I had no desire to tell the shopper of the cases I had won. I had no desire to drop names or give a learned discourse on jury behavior, pretrial pleading and practice, trick shots, and the idiosyncrasies of the innumerable judges I have known. I did not care if another lawyer got the case and made a front-page fortune. For these few minutes I was enjoying the bliss of the uncompetitive. I was in the land of the Tao, free from the anxieties and envy that disturb even those at the very top of the slippery pole.

As I sat there in awe of my own serenity, the shopper asked the inevitable question. "If I were to hire you, what would you sue for?" That question always makes me uneasy.

Serenity brought the appropriate answer: "Your suit must be filed in conformity with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The rules require that the facts of your case are to be set forth in a short, plain statement. The amount you sue for is not a fact related to your claim." The shopper was puzzled by this short, plain statement. He said that he had three more lawyers on his list he must see before making a decision. He said he doubted whether he would entrust his case to a lawyer who did not know how much to sue for. He added that the case was a sure thing, that it was just a question of how much. Even that remark caused no annoyance. The real me would have said, "I am not a sure-thing lawyer. Sure-thing law is a specialty. You should see a sure-thing specialist." The other me did not make that sarcastic remark. The other me thanked the shopper for the concision with which he stated his case.

I believe there is a connection between my visit to the New York law firm and the transcendental experience I just described. Here is my take on it. Lawyerly self-promotion, once commenced, is a full-time job. It requires eternal vigilance to see who is getting ahead. I did not appreciate the full burden of it until I had this moment of release. I can compare it to having a slight headache every day. We learn to tolerate it. We forget how wonderful it is to be without it.

Here let me speak through Sidney J. Harris. "On the pulley system, we go up when someone else goes down, and we go down when someone else goes up. We have no inner stability, because our emotional position keeps shifting in relation to the outside world." Harris goes on to say that most of us judge ourselves on a false relativistic basis. "If we meet someone richer, we feel poor; someone handsomer, we feel ugly; someone more fluent, we feel tongue-tied. If they are up, we are down."

My wonderful experience gave me a glimpse into a state of being reserved for the few who reach a professional maturity that frees them from the judgmental. I wish I knew the mantra that triggers a return of that bliss that transcends all other joys.

Jacob A. Stein is a senior partner with Stein, Mitchell & Mezines LLP. He may be reached by e-mail at jstein@steinmitchell.com.