Sunday, December 13, 2015

Mercy in the Legal Profession

Looking for Kindness and Compassion in our Profession

For the final days of 2015, I would like to share some thoughts with my colleagues about mercy.  Mercy is not necessarily a term you often hear associated with the legal profession, at least not as a mainstream descriptor.  But I am fortunate to have spent most of my legal career with colleagues whose work clearly incorporates the ideals of compassion and kindness, the very definition of mercy.
It is no coincidence that Pope Francis has declared the coming year to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy.  That is what brought me to think about it.  Of course, mercy is a virtue encouraged by all faiths, and is also found in the altruistic moral code of humanism.  So it is a universal virtue that seems like an appropriate subject for an end-of-the-year reflection.  And while this post is geared mainly towards my colleagues in the legal profession, defined widely and beyond the circle of attorneys (paralegals, assistants, investigators, interpreters, etc.), I hope people in other professions will find it worth reading and perhaps find ways to apply it more directly to their fields.

Mercy Through our Work

Our profession provides countless opportunities to show kindness and compassion.  Despite being the favorite target of jokes, lawyers have fought for the rights of others at great risk to their lives and livelihood throughout our nation’s history.  Lawyers have pushed this country ahead, despite daunting odds and often violent opposition, in the areas of civil rights, consumer health, worker safety, environmental preservation and personal freedom, just to name a few.  But perhaps it can be dangerous to always focus on those lofty achievements.  Not everyone can be an Atticus Finch, or a real-life Thurgood Marshal or Erin Brockovich (honorary J.D.!).  But every one of us can serve our profession and clients well in countless ways.  We can express the virtue of mercy in how we treat our clients, in our flexibility and our empathy for their situation, with being fair in our compensation.  We can also work with the countless nonprofit organizations and community agencies that work with the most vulnerable members of our community who are often most in need of strong advocacy and assistance.  Most bar associations encourage its members to offer some form of pro bono assistance, and I know plenty of colleagues that go well above and beyond that call.  So many attorneys work full time for nonprofit agencies, often in challenging and stressful environments, because of their commitment to helping others.  They include public defenders, immigrant advocates, domestic violence advocates, and many others who support the most vulnerable members of the community.  Those of us who don’t work full-time for those organizations can still provide valuable services by volunteering to take on pro bono cases or providing training and other support.  By doing that, we as attorneys can express kindness and compassion towards others, including members of our community and our profession.  For 2016, try to make a specific commitment to one of your community’s nonprofits.  Reach out to them and you may be surprised at how many opportunities exist.

Mercy Through our Advocacy

As lawyers, we have a unique opportunity to not only exercise kindness and compassion directly through our work and interaction with clients, but to advocate on behalf of our clients so that others show mercy as well.  Particularly for those who practice in areas such as immigration or criminal defense, we use our skills of advocacy constantly to give voice to many of our society’s most vulnerable members.  A judge will often have a wealth of information from prosecutors and probation officers that focus on a person’s weakest moment, and on actions that resulted in harm and loss to others.  Unfortunately, many officials who sit in positions of power and influence are far removed from the world in which our clients live and struggle and fail.  And those people who do hit bottom and break the law or find themselves having to answer for their faults often lack the ability to connect and explain what brought them to that moment; or how they truly are remorseful; or how what they did was an aberration- the exception and not the rule.  Attorneys and other advocates have an opportunity to step in and present the full panoply of that person’s life, and widen the lens through which the person is viewed.  The person violated an important rule of our community, but pan out and see that he is still a member of our community- with a family who he supports; with a child she raises by working 2 jobs; with a history of abuse; with a childhood where no opportunities were handed over; a lifetime of hard work and struggles which now fills the screen and puts a mistake, small or great, in some perspective.  By doing that, we allow that judge, adjudicator, social worker or other person of power to perhaps feel the need for some mercy.  We remind them that punishment without rehabilitation is counterproductive, and that a system of justice must show compassion to be worthy of the society it serves.  If we can bring out mercy in others, through our advocacy, then our work is itself one of mercy and worthy of the profession.


Reflect and Plan

As you think about these ideas of mercy, look both behind  and ahead.  Reflect on those moments when your actions were expressions of kindness, or touched others in a way that allowed compassion to flow through them.  Reflect and be glad for those moments.  But let’s also look ahead to the coming year, and develop concrete and specific ways that we will use our talents to continue exercising and encouraging the exercise of compassion and kindness.  In that way, we make our profession a noble one, and our own lives more worthy and fulfilling.

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