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Staying persuasively human during and after law school

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I went from public school to college, to a Wall Street-based bank for a year, to law school, to a law firm, to the Maryland public defender’s office, to another law firm, to my own duo law firm, to my current solo law firm.

Too often during those decades, I have let myself get sucked into the daily grind to lose sight of major world events, personal development, and being in awe of the simple to the profound. Clearly, I was wise not to go right to graduate school from college. During that year, Manhattan and my one-month project to Japan and Hong Kong were my playgrounds, as I rubbed elbows with a much larger cross-section of people than while in college, including plenty of people who never attended college and never would; as I stumbled upon Ron Carter playing in the Knickerbocker nightclub merely by hearing his familiar style while passing by; and as I delighted at seeing Lou Jacobi through a storefront window during lunch time.

To thrive and be happy in life, one needs to connect and reconnect with his or her humanity and with nature. To be persuasive as a trial lawyer or in any other endeavor, one must connect with his her humanity, being compassionately in the moment, in the zone, without distractions of whether one will fall to death or maiming after reaching the mountain’s pinnacle. In fact, any such fear or other fear weakens us.

When I applied to law school, I was excited about the prospect of overlapping my then-future law career with my obsession with human rights work. I expected that part of my law studies would involve learning the language of the oppressive enemy, so that I could more successfully battle that enemy. Today, I realize that we are all connected, and that pure evil does not exist in any one person, nor does pure good reside in too many either. It is not for me to obsess over all the ongoing injustices in the world, but for me to do my share to reverse the injustices and to stem the tide of any further injustices.

I went to law school before the Internet had taken hold among the general public, so that was not an avenue to help me break out of frequent feelings of isolation during law school through finding others who, like I, wanted to use their legal education not merely to become a part of, and bolster, the legal establishment, one that includes an American Bar Association that right into the 1930’s barred African Americans. The ABA’s barring of African-American lawyers helped spur the founding of the National Lawyers Guild, The two groups represent two extremes, with the ABA remaining all too entrenched in the traditional corporate law firm legal establishment, and with the National Lawyers Guild’s refusal to renounce violence as a tool for change and its sponsorship of group visits to such places as Cuba and North Korea without urging respect for human rights by their tremendously oppressive regimes. I have described here my love-cringe relationship with the Guild.

I was all excited to learn at the start of my fall first year semester about one professor involved in promoting free speech rights of the media, only to feel my excitement seriously dampened when he asked if I could return at the end of the semester to talk just briefly about the work he was doing, which work fit so well with my own interests and goals. That exemplified the too-closed-door, non-nurturing approach of too many law professors there. One of my favorite law school professors once told me that some of his colleagues complained to him about his open door approach to law students, which made them look bad. He attended Harvard law school, did not like the closed door of so many law professors, and vowed to have an open door if he ever taught law school.

Law school classes ordinarily based their entire grade on just one exam for the semester. That underlines the intensity of law school and, often, the practice of law. If you got a bad cold that interfered with thinking and studying straight during law school exam week, I suppose it would have been quite a challenge to be able to take the exam on another date. I did my best to stay physically and mentally healthy throughout law school and through today, never missing a court date as a result.

Allen Ginsberg once said that he and some friends were watching then-president Harry S. Truman on television, when they all remarked how foreign his way of talking was to them. He and his friends simply did not talk in that semi-monotone and bland way. Ginsburg and his friends spoke instead with sprinklings of Tabasco sauce and marijuana, with colorful and profane words, also influenced by the car exhaust, graffiti, and survivalism of city streets.

Similarly, if law students and lawyers do not watch out, non-lawyers will have trouble relating to them, seeing them as humanoids with their heads buried in Black’s Law Dictionary and Blackstone’s stiltedly-written legal commentaries.

Law students, law professors and lawyers will do well to spend plenty of time with non-lawyers to keep their humanity. When law students and lawyers date and marry their counterparts in the law, that can be an additional hurdle to becoming accustomed to speaking as regular folks, and not as over-intellectualized lawyers.

After spending an entire month in 1995 at the Trial Lawyers College, where realness and suitless talk and informality were emphasized, I joined a small law firm for two years where we were expected to don our suit jackets when meeting with clients and with the now-late chief law partner. I could have stood up to such silliness, as well as weighed back more than I did to the sharp-tongued pressure from the firm’s chief litigation partner for me to hang my law school and bar admission certificates (I had not bothered framing them yet, and preferred art or blank space on the wall), but I instead decided to learn how to try a civil jury trial, which I did many times, and to move on, which I did.

I was made to be my own boss, which I dreamed of doing since high school at the very least. I have no boss to look at me cross-eyed when I help my client break the tension of the case by laughing like hyenas over sophomoric humor, when I use colorful and sometimes humorous language in court and court filings to make a persuasive point, when I do not wear white shirts (which I rarely wear – reminiscent of a previously offbeat college student who advised "complete conformity" to succeed at his major management consulting firm), and when I avoid eye-glazing traditional bar functions (not all are eye-glazing, but too many are). This is the way that I feel most human and with my wings spread the widest.

Transcendental meditation must be called transcendental for a reason. All the hurdles in life, including those addressed above, are to be transcended, and not to be kvetched about. Of course, as the late great John Johnson said, to deal with our pain, we first must embrace the pain before sending it on its way. This sounds similar to the taijiquan approach of embrace tiger, return to mountain. John much preferred having a bucket of cow dung to a bucket of beautiful fake flowers, for at least the cow dung bucket holds something real. For John, the necessity and power of realness was underlined by the Velveteen Rabbit.

Being persuasively real is the most persuasive and beneficial way to proceed as a trial lawyer and a person. A client who recently hired me thanked me for calling him by his first name and without any lawyer-to-non-lawyer barrier. He had met before me with a lawyer who could not bring himself to call the client by his first name versus Mr. Fieldgreen. The lawyer said he was just not comfortable doing it any other way. Similarly, when a client calls me Mr. Katz, I encourage them to drop the mister if they are comfortable doing so, and sometimes say that "Mr. Katz, actually, is my father."

Criminal defense lawyers have little choice but to drop the legalese and legalisms when talking with clients and non-lawyers. To do otherwise is to stymie the ability for the lawyer and client to relate to each other; for the lawyer to humanize the client to the judge, jury and prosecutor; and for the lawyer to give voice to the client’s plight to return to terra firma as much and as quickly as possible. Blue collar criminal defense does not lend itself to visiting a jail while wearing a silk suit and Ferragamo shoes in person and in attitude. It is a place for wearing proverbial battle fatigues, ready at all times for battle and war.

One of my favorite professors during college was Bill Barnes, who taught the International Investment  Regulation class at the graduate school of  international law and diplomacy. He, as well as his colleague John Roche (who advised Lyndon Johnson, and quipped to the press that he was happy that it was a kidney operation rather than a hemorrhoid operation that Johnson physically revealed to the news cameras) completely deviated from that school’s rarefied atmosphere of numerous professors who were former diplomats, and the many students on sabbatical from their own countries’ diplomat corps. That was highlighted when we were at his Cambridge home for a party at the end of the semester, and he underlined his experience as a soldier during world war II with the "shit fuck guys", whose every other word, exaggerated professor Barnes, was shit and fuck.

Lawyers can harmonize imagination-less shit-fuck talk on the one hand with the overly sanitized and flowery writing of Jane Austen on the other. Allen Ginsberg does that in his Howl masterpiece, interweaving numerous barroom words with masterful use of language and ideas.

All of the foregoing talk about reconnecting with our humanity is hit home when spending time with children. I became a father in my fourth decade. If anyone helps assure that I stay in touch with my humanity, it is my son, now seven. If I even dared to say even one word of legalese to him, he would grab me by the arm and pull me over to play. I feel the pull.