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Law Office Management

Mar. 2, 2008

Agent of Change

I do hospice volunteer work, offering care and support to residents during the last hours of their lives. The experience has changed my approach to practicing law.

On Mondays, about 4:30 p.m., I depart my office in San Francisco's financial district and head up Market Street to the top of Twin Peaks, to Laguna Honda Hospital, which serves the city's needy. There, in Ward C-2, I do hospice volunteer work, anonymously offering care and support to residents during the last hours of their lives. This powerful experience has brought new perspective to my 34-year career as a land use lawyer.
      I have been a hospice volunteer for four years. Though it's always difficult to pinpoint exactly what brought me here, it likely had much to do with my own cancer diagnosis 16 years ago. While many people are afraid of being exposed to death in such a setting, I find it uplifting and invigorating. Here, I offer my greatest service.
      During my five-hour shift, which begins at 5 p.m., I sometimes feed residents. Often, I listen to their stories. Occasionally, I play my ukulele and sing Tin Pan Alley tunes. And, as death approaches these people, there is nothing more to do but sit quietly. It doesn't matter that I'm a lawyer. What matters is that I am there.
      Although I have seen many people die, each follows his or her own unique path. The nature of the disease, any cognitive impairment, the emotional state of the person dying, as well as his or her spiritual grounding give each death its individual signature. Yet all deaths share common elements.
      Facing death takes enormous courage. Death is about confronting profound change and recognizing that this change is inevitable. What was is gone. It can only be retrieved in memory. Now is all we have.
      Based on what the dying have taught me, I see my professional work in a new way. As attorneys, we are agents of change. We plan for it, transact it, and litigate it. And, as a result of our interventions, we initiate future waves of change. When viewed from this perspective, we carry enormous responsibility. As a result, my entire approach to how I conduct my professional life has undergone a paradigm shift.
      Previously, I saw my principal role as an advocate for my clients; I now see myself more as their counselor. I seek opportunities to nurture relationships among those who see themselves as combatants. I also attempt to remove my ego from the center of the engagement, knowing that a collaborative solution will last longer than any lawyer's brilliant idea. As a result, I find I have more room to bring creativity and innovation to my work. On a larger scale, because I recognize that the environment in which we find ourselves is inevitably going to change, I strive to create outcomes that can both anticipate and accommodate that change.
      Here are a few tips I've picked up from my work with the dying. First, study how you react to change. What perceptions, attitudes, and judgments do you hold that stand in the way of accepting change over which you have little or no control? It is almost certain that in the course of every engagement, some immovable obstacle will present itself to you. The earlier you see it and choose a creative path around it-or simply accept it-the less energy you waste.
      Second, set noble intentions for how you conduct yourself. Each morning when you awake, take some small aspect of that noble intention and try to fulfill it. At the end of the day, see if you have even gotten close. In time, you will. Most people intuitively grasp your intentions; if you include among these honoring others, they will know it. And, you will be offered a greater opportunity to build real relationships.
      Third, learn to listen deeply and patiently. Begin by presuming the essential goodness of those with whom you are dealing. In other words, don't carry your baggage into the conversation. By listening deeply, you can get out of your own way to hear the fundamental concerns of those with whom you are communicating.
      Finally, begin to see that the process by which you deal with others is paramount. If you can work from your essential goodness, hold noble intentions, withhold your judgments, and listen deeply and patiently, you will build solid relationships. And, inevitably, those relationships will secure more timely and lasting outcomes.
      I have adopted these practices as part of my professional conduct. They work. And, not surprisingly, they work in my personal life too.

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