Resurrecting Aesop

Book Review: Resurrecting Aesop

By JOHN ACUFF
Special to the HERALD-CITIZEN

Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist who probably is legendary and never really lived, has never really died either.

Mike Papantonio, a very skilled and successful trial lawyer and speaker, has taken several of the fables which have come down to us and aimed them squarely at those who practice law. As you read them, you’ll wonder how a sage of yore, dead perhaps thousands of years, could see you in Big, Rich & Ruthless, P.C. on the 33rd floor of the city’s newest building. Trust me; this country lawyer pondered the same thing as he read Resurrecting Aesop: Fables Lawyers Should Remember.

Papantonio, because he lives as a lawyer and with lawyers, is able to pierce our crafted personas, our gilded barricades, and see right through the defenses we set up in secretaries, paralegals, legal assistance and of course our barrage of BS. He causes us, if we read the book, to examine the foundations on which we base our lives and to examine the resulting view of the world and the values we place on people and things.

We are urged to consider how we live, how we relate to our nearest and dearest, our peers, clients and ultimately how we value ourselves. He wants to know if we are truly at peace with it; and if not, are we willing to consider the wisdom of the ages from a variety of cultures, religions and people?

The author uses to great effect a survey he recently mailed to a significant number of lawyers as well as surveys done by others. He quotes from The New Jersey Lawyer an article that headlined the following apparent facts in order to get our attention:

One out of every four lawyers suffers from elevated feelings of psychological distress, their primary complaints being, in order – interpersonal feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, anxiety, social alienation/isolation/depression. Out of 105 occupations, that of lawyer rated first in depression; 45 percent feel that they don’t have enough family time and 54 percent do not have enough time for themselves.

If you are a lawyer or live around them, you know deep inside that these numbers are, if anything, on the low side. Take five minutes and consider each of the statements. You are not trying to impress a client, a jury or all your peers at a bar meeting where everyone is wearing five colored ribbons to prove they belong.

Mike Papantonio calls us to at least be honest with ourselves. Five minutes will convince you that you should take off a day or more by yourself with no agenda except to consider: who you are, and how that is different from the truly fine per- son you could be.

He uses examples I would have never expected, like Lee Atwater, the caustic speech writer and take-no-prisoners activist for the Republican Party. Lee, in his last days, met a “carpenter” he could neither bluff nor escape and began to change his ways and ask forgiveness from the ones he had attacked.

He also quotes solo practitioners and those the rest of us think have arrived. You should understand that most of those income tax returns will not exceed or equal that of the author.

Various of the fables are used to illuminate truth, such as that lawyer who is sometimes envious of comer offices, restored airplanes or cars, expensive hobbies and the power emanating from some of his big city peers. In the fable, the city mouse visits his country cousin and tells him of all the good life in the city in such glowing terms that the country cousin has to go and see.

Reading the fable made us less envious. The city comes with traffic jams, few if any relationships of any depth among lawyers even in the same firm and a horrid stress level which are all incorporated in the very large cat that eats mice and, if not their bodies, then so often their souls.

The author calls us to examine the dog that has discovered a truly large and wonderful bone and is very happy with it until, while crossing a footbridge, he sees in the water below what appears to be a dog with an even bigger and better bone and drops his bone to dive into the water to take the new bone.

As he hits the water, he realizes that he has given up the wonderful bone he had for an illusion. What is the bigger bone that tempts us? A new expensive car, a new office, a new level of fame and, money or a new late model spouse that will understand and adore, at least until they discover what little we are willing to contribute to the relationship.

Be wary of giving up the really good for that which may be only the lure of vanity or pride. It’s like a dog chasing a car – stop sometime and see if the dog has a clue what to do with a car.

How long has it been since you took a class that was not CLE approved? Recently read any books not guaranteed to improve your trial skills or your income or how to meet and impress people? Has it been longer still since you went to see the really significant people in your life’s journey, not just to get your ticket punched to avoid guilt but with no agenda except to be with them.

You might consider your parents if you are blessed to still have them; your mentor in life or college (read Tuesdays with Morrie), maybe even your siblings or a favorite relative. We should read here and ask ourselves how long it’s been since we took someone to lunch without having something we wanted from them.

The book examines the danger of comparing ourselves to others. We do this in two ways, by picking someone that we consider inferior to us and using the comparison to boost our view of ourselves; or we look at some one with a bigger and better bone and say, “If I can just get there, I’ll be content. I’ll have time for (insert the names of spouse, children…).

This book, like Papantonio’s earlier In Search of Atticus Finch and Clarence Darrow: Journeyman, should be required reading in every law school. It is sad that instead of places where the profession is taught as a vocation, the schools are too often prouder of the starting pay of its graduates and the places of price and power they now occupy.

Bobby Kennedy Jr. wrote the foreword to this book, and consequently I picked it up with a certain cynicism about what he would add other than an endorsement of Papantonio’s writing. But,I discovered that they were in most places on the same page and that Kennedy very succinctly says not in parables but in clear English what he thinks is important.

Young Kennedy explains that healthy ambition is the desire to do God’s will and to enjoy his blessings and that Papantonio’s conclusions confirm his own beliefs that good behavior results in good results and even if it does not in terms of victory or riches, it still gives you the satisfaction of a life well lived, a good reputation, the respect of peers – all of which exceed in value the illusory victories of money and fame.

This is a short book but you should be warned that if you read it and reflect on it, it could forever change the way you live and practice and cause you to buy a copy for some other tired, hurting, lonely lawyer who acts like it is all cream and cherries.

John Acuff is a Cookeville attorney.