The world has been through dark things in the past couple weeks. But here in the U.S., we will nonetheless sit down on Thanksgiving Day with family and friends for a shared meal that is the proper antithesis — perhaps the strongest one — to hate, death and destruction.
And while you are feeling generally grateful, you should know that academic legal scholars have examined the trait of gratitude and how it is and can be expressed in your life as a lawyer.
In her excellent 2012 article, which appeared in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, author Reed Elizabeth Loder says that “Gratitude might be a curious topic at a time that the public maligns, even demonizes lawyers. Asking lawyers to endure social scorn and yet feel thankful seems a double insult. Yet … every lawyer should cultivate, feel, and act upon a special type of gratitude — call it legal gratitude.” Cultivating this attitude, says Loder, can be a “sustaining source of ethical inspiration to lawyers.” Having that inspiration can provide us with the outlook we need if we are to survive in our challenging profession with our inmost beings intact.
So here are five reasons to specifically be thankful for being a lawyer.
- Our knowledge, skill and training are gifts. Whether a GC of a Fortune 500, or a contract lawyer doing document review, we should recognize that we have achieved a privileged status in society that has improved our own lives, and created personal opportunities. Even if we have earned our professional status by our own hard work, we have to acknowledge that we have “social and personal privileges” by virtue of the generally just society that permitted us to acquire our status, Loder writes. “Whereas citizens owe gratitude to their government for general belonging and public benefits, the lawyer owes special gratitude for a legal heritage that bestows greater than normal benefits. For this aura surrounding a life in the law, the lawyer should feel grateful.”
- Our work has purpose. More important than the concrete social advantages that being a lawyer brings to us, “are the possibilities a lawyer acquires for a meaningful professional and personal life. The law is a worthy profession because it serves the intrinsic good of justice … Unlike many forms of work, legal work has an overarching purpose as its measure.” Even when we struggle to find that purpose in the face of moral and practical uncertainty, “it is a privilege to have some standard of goodness” by which we calibrate our professional integrity.
- We have the ability to change society. “Because law is so central in a contemporary society that has few other shared cultural moorings, the lawyer is privileged to effectuate social changes that few have the power even to touch. … Lawyers can influence, to small or large extent, legal reform and justice in particular cases.”
- We have the opportunity to help. As Loder says, “there is never a shortage of satisfying work for those lawyers who can make time to donate their expertise to represent otherwise voiceless clients or causes.”
- We have the opportunity to grow personally. Whatever you call your inner being — your soul, your psyche, your character — being a lawyer presents an incredible opportunity to refine and perfect it. This concept may get lost in the hurly burly of daily practice, with its competitiveness and all the ordinary encounters we have that can diminish and dispirit us. But at bottom, as Loder puts it, “the legal experiences that spur lawyers to perfect their craft and cultivate personal traits like patience and fortitude are the sources of gratitude.”
Our privileged position in society, the chance to do good work and serve a just system, the opportunity to serve others — all these build our own capacity for generosity and caring, and bring meaning to our own lives.
For these things, we should be grateful.