Compliance with Care? How Intentional Lawyering Can Save the World

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by experienced employment attorney and friend of the blog, Bob Coursey. You’ll learn about Bob’s character and values just by reading this piece but for more detail check out his bio below.

I was talking with a fellow management-side employment lawyer (who is also a friend) recently and I made an offhand comment encouraging her to go out and continue doing the good work of protecting our nation’s employers.

She corrected me: “Actually, I feel like most of what I do when it comes to counseling employers is protecting employees . . .” 

She was 100% right.

I told her I was glad she “corrected” my comment about our job being all about protecting employers. I further told her I felt a little silly that we were even having this exchange, because this is one of my pet issues: I believe there is a common misconception among many (including some of my close friends and family) that, as an employment lawyer who counsels and represents management, my job is somehow anti-employee. 

That is so far from the truth. But convincing anyone of that is not the point of this article.  Instead, my point is that by lawyering with intentionality we can make the world a better place. My life experience is as a management-side employment lawyer, so the specifics I discuss here relate to employment law.

I’ve been a lawyer for a long time now, and it’s clear to me that management-side employment lawyers are in a position to be a great force for good for employees. But being in that position and acting on it are two different things. I can look to my own 24-year career as a management-side employment lawyer and see that. 

Early in my career (before many humbling life experiences, and before discovering meditation, mindfulness, and intentionality), I didn’t consider, at least not with any intentionality, the bigger picture of my counsel to and representation of my clients. Being a zealous advocate meant the client’s interest was my singular focus. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that philosophy. I was very effective and abided by all of my professional ethical duties.

Fast forward a couple decades. I’m a work in progress, like all of us, but I feel confident saying the years have made me wiser when it comes to how I advise my clients.

If you’re not interested in making the world a better place, this article isn’t for you, and that’s fine. But for those of you lawyers who want to be a force for good but aren’t sure how, let me remind you that our jobs likely provide us many opportunities to be a force for good–if we’re intentional about how we lawyer. By lawyering with intentionality, we can help our clients do well by helping them do good.

There’s a lot of suck in the world. To counter the suck, we need good people to act. For most people, the ability to do good is often limited to their own direct actions. But if you’re a lawyer, doing your job often means advising other people on how to act. There’s power there. 

We wield that power whether we are intentional about it or not. 

Let me be clear: Nothing I’m saying here should be interpreted as suggesting we lawyers violate, or even flirt with violating, our ethical duties to our clients. Our counsel to our clients should never put our clients’ interests or legal compliance subservient to the interests of others. What I am suggesting is that for lawyers to ignore the bigger picture, the broader community of interests, is often to do a disservice not only to those other interests, but to our clients too.

It’s easy for lawyers to fall into the trap of thinking of the much of the world as an us-versus-them environment. We rarely hear from our clients when things are rosy. The world can sound like a pretty troublesome place when every call you take, every email you read, is about disagreements, arguments, accusations, and various troubles between humans. For those lawyers who spend a significant part of their time defending their clients in litigation (like I did for the first 10 years of my career), it may be even harder to avoid falling into this us-versus-them trap.

Now 24 years and lots of life experiences into my career, my heart is softer, my perspective is broader, and at the same time I feel like I’ve never been a better legal adviser. I guess practice makes perfect, because I’ve spent thousands of hours counseling companies to:

  • -protect employees from harassers/bullies/jerks
  • -accommodate employees with health, family, religious, or other needs
  • -support or coach employees instead of imposing discipline
  • -communicate better with employees
  • -promote deserving employees
  • -allow employees to work from home for health or other personal reasons

These are some examples of the type of employee-friendly counsel that I offer when I believe it’s in my client’s best interests, which is almost 100% of the time.

It’s exceedingly rare that good legal counsel in a workplace situation calls for taking an aggressively antagonistic, anti-employee approach. When those unfortunate situations present themselves, we management-side employment lawyers should counsel our clients accordingly. But treating employees with humanity, dignity, and fairness should always be the default.

In my field of employment law, this philosophy yields good client results. How do I know? Clients tell me. I see the lawsuits that don’t get filed. I see the careers that aren’t ended prematurely. I see workplace relationships salvaged. I hear about workplaces where trust exists between employees and management. I could tell you about countless situations that had lawsuit written all over them, but because I worked with my client to take an intentionally employee-focused approach to handling the situation, litigation was avoided.

I believe the same philosophy can yield similar positive results in other areas of law. Regardless of the area of law, there’s almost always a broader perspective to consider than our clients’ specific interest. There’s almost always going to be others affected by our clients’ decisions and actions, for better or worse. For me, it’s my clients’ employees and those employees’ families and communities that I choose to consider with intentionality when I advise my clients. Who is it for your clients?

The world can look like a very dark place to a lot of people in 2022. Our clients and their communities are dealing with everything ranging from mental health struggles to hate and violence. As lawyers, the nature of our job means that we are sought out by clients when they are facing some of the hardest times in their lives, and they look to us for counsel through these dark times.

Are lawyers going to solve all of these problems? Of course not. But in my small part of the world, I have no doubt that my clients have a huge role to play in their employees’ lives, which means that as their employment lawyer, I’m in a position to do some good, not only for my clients, but often in the broader sense. And the world needs every single bit of good it can get. I bet you can say the same about your clients, and your role in advising them.

Our jobs give us the privilege of having a part to play in the lives of many people, which has ripple effects on the world. It’s up to us what we do with that privilege, whether those ripples are positive or negative. Today, I’m going to look for opportunities to do some good in the world. I hope you’ll join me.

Author Bio: Bob Coursey has been an employment lawyer for over 20 years. He spent his first 10 years of practice at Fisher Phillips, one of the most respected employment law firms in the country, where he defended companies in employment related litigation. He then spent 11 years at Employers Council, where he focused his practice on keeping employers out of trouble. In 2021, Bob started his own company—Modern Age Employment Law—where he counsels, represents, and trains employers who are looking for a modern approach to their employment law and HR challenges. Bob is licensed to practice law in Utah and Georgia. He’s also a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) and SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP).Despite all that very dry sounding info, Bob is actually a real person too. He’s a music lover, an OK drummer who still dreams of being a rock star, a daily meditator and certified meditation teacher, a Peloton enthusiast, a t-shirt re-designer, a lover of Utah’s outdoors, and a husband and father of four kids who bring him immense joy.

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.

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