Can The Four Agreements Work in Law?
I am an avid reader. Growing up relatively poor in Kentucky, my mom took my sisters and me to the library almost weekly for the free stories that would occupy our inquisitive minds. In some ways a product of the women’s suffrage movement, my mom was taught that you can never accumulate too much knowledge, regardless of your circumstances, and she passed that on to each of us.
It is rare that I am without a book to fill my brain with empowering content when I can’t get a seat on the subway or connect to the Internet during a flight. One of my favorite quick reads is The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz, who has long studied Toltec Wisdom. I have referred back to these simple rules for living many times over the past 12 years since my cousins bought me the book after seeing me peruse it in a boutique in New Hope, Pennsylvania. These agreements might have even inspired the Seven Choices I ask my Conflict Resolution clients to make as we delve into their disputes.
Throughout these years of exploration and growth, I have admittedly struggled to reconcile the Four Agreements with my work as a lawyer. Can the two co-exist? I now propose that they can absolutely live in harmony. Perhaps there is no other way to practice law effectively. I am not a “Legal Rebel”. I just want to practice the way I thought we were supposed to: as ethical Officers of the Courts, above all else. Here are four ways through which we might do this.
- Be impeccable with your word. Do what you say you’re going to do and when you say you’re going to do it, of course, and honor your word when you can’t deliver as expected. But also be aware of the impact of your misleading, evasive, or false statements (and omissions) made purportedly in zealous advocacy of your clients. The Rules of Professional Conduct for New York Lawyers stopped using zealousness as the standard in 2009–likely because some attorneys took the concept a bit too far. It actually be in your client’s long-term best interests to take responsibility for his actions, not to be lured into believing he can finds ways to avoid it. He’ll probably be stronger, wiser, and more resilient when Life inevitably throws another curve ball his way. Try using your word to discuss the big picture and try to empower him accordingly.
- Don’t take anything personally. I haven’t mastered this one yet. I feel my clients’ disappointments as if they were my own. I am hurt when opposing counsel, judges, and court personnel disrespect me or my clients, and I become resigned and cynical when complaints are dismissed by those charge with maintaining the Rules of Civility and Judicial Conduct. But I’ve trained myself to look from a distance. From there, I can see that hurt people really do hurt people, and this is why I continue to expand my conflict resolution services. As lawyers, we are in unique positions to influence parties in conflict. Is it not our desire, if not our responsibility, to leave them better than we found them? To do this, we must set our own insecurities aside.
- Don’t make assumptions. In our Trial Technique courses, we are taught to never ask a witness questions we don’t know their answers to. This keeps us from assuming facts for which there is no evidence and therefor opening ourselves up to a discredited witness. Yet we still find ourselves assuming our clients are telling the truth, that their motives are pure, that their witnesses or experts are credible, that the process will be fair, and that we’ve practiced long enough to know how things will turn out. We can’t be surprised–until we are.
- Always do your best, under the circumstances, including with the other three agreements. Prepare as if this was your first case in your first day of practice. Choose your words carefully. Stay fully present to the arguments, testimony, or consultation. (Stop checking your phone during them!) Look past the personal attacks. Trust yourself. Forgive yourself. Reach out for coaching, mentoring, or other guidance when you need it.
You’ve got this! But if you need help remembering that, we’re happy to support you in developing a system that has you generating the courage, confidence and integrity you need to exceed even your own expectations.