What Law Firm Leaders Can Learn from Better Call Saul

I was watching Better Call Saul with my husband as Howard Hamlin, the law firm partner with perfectly quaffed blonde hair and a toothpaste commercial grin, appeared on screen. After meeting with the title character, Saul Goodman, Howard gets into an expensive vehicle and drives away to reveal a vanity plate that reads “NAMAST3”. We already knew that Howard had been struggling with his past and had turned to yoga and new-found spirituality to tame his inner demons. Unfortunately, as the audience eventually learns, Howard’s inner peace is much like the spelling on his vanity plate: not quite right. 

My husband smirked, turned to me and said, “Does that irritate you?” He was mocking me, but I was nerding out far too hard to acknowledge it. Instead of rolling my eyes at him, I replied “No, this is a great example about how easy it is to gaslight ourselves with spirituality.” Indeed it was, but it turned out to be a tragic one too. In Better Call Saul, Howard had turned to yoga and mindfulness to soothe his tortured soul after the downfall and death of his mentor and Saul’s brother, Charles McGill. 

Despite this new-found ethos, however, there is little evidence of reflection on Howard’s part about his preoccupation with appearing perfect or the practices of his own law firm. Tragically, Howard’s obsession with his reputation left him vulnerable to Saul’s tricks, and it ultimately lead to his own death and the implosion of his firm.

I talk about the power of mindfulness all the time, so it may seem strange that I would draw attention to Howard Hamlin. If anything, he shows us that mindfulness has limits, right? And, to be sure, the characters on Better Call Saul are generally examples of what not to do as attorneys. So why talk about them? 

I talk about them because, of course, there are limits to mindfulness practices. As Howard demonstrates, one of the dangers of mindfulness practice is that it can help you feel better temporarily or on a surface level without achieving the clarity needed for real peace. If you don’t have other supports to ground you, you may end up deluding yourself instead of growing and understanding yourself better.

The show doesn’t tell us what practices and teachers Howard relied on to develop his mindfulness practice, though his license plate suggests he went for yogic practices. The show offers clues, however, that Howard is otherwise intent on appearing serene when his life in many ways seems to be falling apart. Though he experienced the death of his law partner, strife in his firm, and an impending divorce, Howard seems intent on showing everyone how happy and at ease he is. There’s also no mention of Howard trying additional strategies, like therapy for example, to support himself.

I don’t say these things to suggest that Howard was a bad guy. He really wanted to be a good guy. He wanted to be a mentor to young lawyers. He wanted to be a good leader and build a law firm that lasted. The problem is that Howard was not an aware guy because he was afraid to see himself as he really was. In this way, Howard Hamlin was entirely human, but his obsession with looking at peace tragically got in the way of him ever finding it. 

Research is clear that mindfulness practices, including yoga, can help you reduce stress and feel more at peace. They do that, though, by helping you face yourself as you are and life as it is. Part of that means accepting your own imperfections and learning how to share them with others. As Howard Hamlin shows us, your so-called inner peace can get torn apart very easily when you can’t allow yourself to do this. 

The legal profession certainly needs more law firm leaders who are willing to be examples about leading a good life, including the practices that help them do it. So, if you are a serious yogi, go ahead and talk about it and keep that yoga mat in your office. But, don’t just talk about it and throw a vanity plate on your car. You also need to act on the values that have served you well. You need to be real in a way that Howard Hamlin never let himself be about the struggles you’ve had rather than merely trying to convey an illusion of spiritual purity. Not only do you deserve all the support you can get when you deal with hardships in life, your law firm may need you to get it. 

Indeed, research suggests that emotional intelligence and relationship-building are essential leadership traits. Even the best lawyers would struggle to do either of these things without being honest with themselves and others about who they really are. Law firm leaders who embrace mindfulness to help stabilize themselves can certainly use the practices to become better leaders for their firms.

But they shouldn’t do so with the objective of always looking calm and serene, especially not when real crises in life or law practice are happening. Instead, the practices are there to help you accept and face what is there–in yourself or in life–and greet it with compassion. When you can do this, there will be no need to tell people how at peace you are because you’ll show it with your life, law practice, and leadership every day.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Like this post? Subscribe to the blog or follow us on social media.

Which Encanto Character Are You? Law Firm Edition

If you have small children or have just not been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know the lyrics to “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” by heart. Both of my girls are under 10, so although we don’t talk about Bruno we definitely have been singing about him, constantly, on a loop, for weeks now. And we have had vigorous philosophical debates about which character we like best and which is the worst. As someone who came of age in the era of internet identity tests, I couldn’t help but wonder which Encanto character I am. As a law firm partner, the next imaginings on the topic turned to my colleagues and lawyer friends.

When you think about it, the struggle of the family Madrigal in the midst of crisis and change isn’t too far off from the situations of many law firms trying to navigate technology, wellness, diversity, succession planning, and pandemic issues and move into the future. If you aren’t so sure, read on and find out which Encanto character you and your law firm colleagues might be.

Mirabel

Do you work in a firm and just stare blankly at people when they tell you that “you just have to find your niche”? You might be Mirabel. Although you haven’t quite figured out your superpower just yet, you are curious, collegial, and brave. If you have the support of compassionate firm mentors and enough freedom to explore, you might become a great leader because of your ability to see things that others ignore.

Abuela

Let’s be clear, the senior partners run the show. But, just like Abuela, they can become so fixated on stability that they block innovation and new leadership. At their worst, they may lead from fear and create toxic situations for others even when their intentions are good. Like Abuela, senior partners deserve respect for their ability to build stability in the midst of change over time but if that respect overawes all other voices the firm can’t evolve and it may alienate and stifle talented attorneys.

Luisa

In the firm setting, Luisa can come in many forms. They can be the big rainmaker who brings in the lion’s share of the firm business but feels burdened by the job. They might be the person who is effective at managing firm housekeeping and either volunteers or is voluntold for all the committees. It can even be that support staff member who goes out of their way to take care of others but gets taken advantage of when all the filing deadlines fall on the same day. These people struggle to ask for help and make a point of making things look easy. They are wonderful and critical elements of the team, but good firm leaders know to be proactive to check in on their status regularly to ensure that they don’t feel like a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus.

Isabela

The Isabela of the law firm is the person who shows exceptional talent and value in one area but struggles to expand their role. They may be an excellent writer or have a specific knowledge of technical issues that nobody else understands. Because these attorneys have found and excelled in their niche, they may usually appear like things are as sweet as rows and rows of roses. Growth, however, doesn’t just mean continued productivity and solid billable hours. It can also mean learning, trying new things, and surprising oneself with new skills. Safe firm cultures and open communication are essential to help these skilled attorneys avoid becoming pigeonholed so they have someone besides a recruiter to ask “what else can I do?”

Camilo

Camilo is the foil of Isabela. This is the attorney who literally believes he or she can do any matter that comes up. These lawyers are often plucky, scrappy, and unsinkable and law firms can often use that energy to their advantage. On the other hand, figuring out the true selling points and marketing an attorney with a practice like this can be as confusing as trying to find the real Camilo in any scene in Encanto.

Julieta

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a temporary freeze on the person who brings cookies (or arepas) into the office to feed everyone, but the odds are that your firm nevertheless has a Julieta. For attorneys, this is the person whose office everyone runs to for advice or just to be heard. This could be a support staff member or administrator who goes the extra mile to not just do the work but also bring calm and kindness to everything they do. These people are mild, steady, and gracious. They may not always advocate for themselves but, because they are essential to the sanity of the entire organization, firm leaders should acknowledge and reward their efforts.

Pepa

All law firms like to say that they are collegial. I’ve heard most firms say how kind and decent everyone is. But I have never heard a firm claim that there are no drama queens around. It happens in every organization. The Pepa of your firm can bring the sunshine at a firm happy hour or party and may be quick to share a joke or story. They may also be the first to get lost in a storm of emotion when the network goes down at 4 PM and a brief is due. If this is you, surround yourself with steady, stable people and keep reading this blog so you can learn some strategies for managing stress.

Antonio

Unless you firm allows pets in the workplace, you may think there’s no place for Antonio in this quiz, but my obsession will not be deterred by anything so paltry as literal truth. In the firm setting, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that Antonio’s skill of talking with animals can be analogized to the uncanny skill that some lawyers have in dealing with clients. Surely, clients are people just like us lawyers, but in most cases their brains were not warped by 3 years of law school so this can sometimes make communication with clients a struggle. The Antonio of your firm is the person who can speak the language of clients across industries and build deep and lasting relationships with them.

Dolores

The Dolores of the firm is the person who just seems to know what is going on even when the partners all believe incorrectly it’s a secret. They may or may not tell everyone about what they know. If you are friends with Dolores, try to listen more than you talk and you may learn some interesting things.

Bruno

Yes, at last, we are going to talk about Bruno. I truly hope that you don’t have any lawyers driven mad by their visions of the future living with rats in the walls of your firm. So, what is the Bruno of your law firm? Well, Bruno is whatever issue your firm doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe it’s compensation. Maybe it’s succession planning. Or diversity. Or low morale. All firms have a Bruno but it’s the ones that eventually learn to talk about it that will be able to stabilize their casita to continue serving the community in the future.

So, which Encanto character are you? It’s a fun question to ask, and many of us may exhibit elements of more than one character. But, for law firm leaders, the lessons in Encanto about crisis and organizational change may be more than just family fun. Just like casita, law firms are also full of stars who want to shine, but their leaders must recognize and account for the fact that constellations shift to keep the magic going.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.