Connection, Curiosity, and Courage: An Exhortation from Bryan Stevenson

The American Bar Association recently awarded Bryan Stevenson with the ABA Medal, which “recognizes exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence.” Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, gave a stirring acceptance speech, which is available here. Go listen to it. The whole thing. You can’t read further until you do. I will know if you do.

Sadly, I am bluffing on that last part.

The four themes Stevenson presented in his speech are instructive for all lawyers.

Sidebar: At this point, I fully expect the following criticism:

  1. “I don’t spend my days representing those who are sitting on death row. What on Earth would someone like Stevenson have to say that would resonate with me?”
  2. “I don’t believe Stevenson. He is inflammatory and his idea of justice is trying to tear down our institutions. Plus, I am not a member of the ABA and don’t believe it speaks to me or for me.”
  3. “Meh. And besides, everything you write about is supposedly ‘timely’ or ‘crucial’ or a ‘must-read.’ If this is not going to lead directly to more business for me, then I am not interested.”

These are fair points. Maybe. But read on, and consider a) whether what the speech emphasizes is precisely why you resist hearing Stevenson’s message; and b) (similarly) how these themes might encourage you to take a little different view of the shape you’re in and the challenges you face. (If you don’t have any challenges, you never picked up this article or got this far reading it).

We’re awash in cliches. Not just in politics, but in our offices and homes and at lunch and on social media. And there is nothing wrong with heuristics (like cliches) that help us express truths and concepts in shorthand ways, as long as the words are still infused with meaning and value. The problem arises when the way we talk and think maintains distance (ironic or otherwise) from the things that require closer examination or a more full consideration.

For example, the term “thoughts and prayers” is wonderful, provided that the speaker is 1) actually having thoughts and saying prayers; and 2) taking appropriate actions (helping, listening, etc.). But often the routine, rote, and reflexive utterance is all that is real, and there is no underlying substance beyond creating the appearance that something worthy is taking place. In other words, not only is there no thinking and praying, but necessary connection to people and their grief may never occur.

Bringing the topic of catchphrases a little closer to the law practice, we all want to “think like a lawyer,” “build our practice,” and “find a niche,” but do very little to do the real work that would entail: examining what our practices involve and determining what we need to do to serve clients (and our potential clients) now and in the future. And so we remain stuck and frustrated and seemly powerless to make progress.

This is why I repeat Tom Peters’ admonition to leaders that they walk around workplaces and really understand how work gets done.

I am a Tom Peters Fan-Boy. I own that.

In other words, you have to connect. If you want to solve problems, you have to see them for what they really are. It’s not enough to repeat a term your founding partner used sixty years ago. And that means getting close. Dare I say it, uncomfortably close. (But I am getting ahead of myself).

Similarly, the narratives (think stories if that is more helpful) that drive our lives are accepted without question because they are provided from someone higher up the chain or are the ones that have been told for a long time. And many of those stories still resonate and help drive success. But your job is to determine which ones no longer hold meaning, and tell and live the ones that do.

Many of us recall hearing “the law is a jealous mistress,” (what is the male counterpart of “mistress”?) and its warning that our profession can be all-consuming. That cliche may still resonate, but let me suggest another one: “the technology you use is a jealous mistress.” One of these mistresses is taking something very valuable from you, and giving you nothing in return.

The fear of change is real. And fear performs an important function: to keep you from investing needless energy into changing something that is working for you (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

But if you want to overcome fear (of being wrong, of rocking the boat, of disagreeing with everybody in the room), you have to be more curious than you are afraid. (Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert for that one). And curiosity turns out to be an effective tool for confronting fear.

And curiosity frequently gives way to hopelessness (despondency, apathy, helplessness), especially when when you’re awash in cynicism (“livin’ the dream …”) and negativity bias and crushing debt and new challenges. Hence the need to keep some degree of hope alive.

And I am not talking about Panglossian optimism that does not take reality into account. To the contrary. See my point above.

I just mean enough energy and willingness to engage and work toward the future with the idea that we’ll still be relevant in it. I agree wholeheartedly with Kevin Kelly on this point:

And that takes courage: enough heart to fuel convictions to sustain you when things aren’t going well in the office or in the economy.

I love that this was the ultimate theme of Stevenson’s speech, because it encompasses the other three so nicely. It is uncomfortable to engage with difficult situations and wicked problems (perhaps they reveal their wickedness only when we get up close). Challenging an established narrative or a long-held belief or the person holding or espousing same is uncomfortable and scary. And worse than that, it’s impolite (gasp), especially here in the South where you’d sooner duel in the middle of Main Street than get into an argument.

Even being hopeful is uncomfortable when it runs counter to the stories being told around us.

And having uncomfortable conversations takes all the connection, curiosity and courage you can muster. If you are looking to recharge your practice, or charge it for the first time, then don’t you need meaning and heart, a mindset that is open to learning new things, and the willingness to confront the facts no matter how stark or inconvenient they are?

And if you disagree, can we at least argue about it?

The kind folks at the Richland County Bar were kind enough to publish the above. You can find this article, as well as many others that are a great deal more cogent, timely, and relevant, here.

Litigator, appellate advocate, regulatory and information technology attorney @adamsandreese, Information Privacy Professional (CIPP-US)