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Resurrecting Aesop
...fables lawyers should remember.

Atticus Finch

In law, as in life, we are challenged to walk with one foot in the spiritual realm and one in the material. As lawyers, we struggle to live by the values that bring happiness and keep us centered with God while embracing the tactics that bring us success in our professional endeavors. Mike Papantonio teaches that these ought not to be contradictory purposes.

In becoming a great lawyer, we sometimes risk losing sight of the things that make us a good human being. Our work can become an addiction that robs our families and deprives us of the balance that is the emblem of a truly rich life. Job stress, high stakes, and the professional duty to vigorously defend our clients occasionally incline us toward incivility or worse.

Every lawyer has the opportunity to tweak the truth, to spin a tale, or to massage the facts to gain advantage in litigation. The very gifts for justification and rationalization that make us effective lawyers may tend to decalibrate our moral compass or hobble us in our more important relationships. The moral challenges are always greatest in the hurly-burly of trial work when decisions must be made instantaneously and the perils of losing seem most frightening. Self-will often leads good lawyers into bad habits, tantalizing them with the illusory rewards of large fees, easy victories and hasty advancement.

Such choices place peace of mind, self-esteem, and reputations-those things with true spiritual value-in jeopardy. When that happens, we have got to go back to basics. Every day we must struggle to again submit self-will to God's will, a struggle with drama, difficulties, and pitfalls that are amplified by professional success. If our profession is to enhance our personal growth we must operate by the premise that there is no case and no cause that is important enough to make us compromise our basic values and no material acquisition to substitute for a virtuous life. We must constantly readjust and check our moral compass and continuously ask ourselves, "Am I doing the right thing now?" As we accumulate power and wealth that beckon us to live by our own rules, we must persistently discipline ourselves to live by the rules we learned in grade school: don't lie, cheat, or steal, and do onto others as you would have them do unto you. These are the values that place God over self and community over self-indulgence.

Mike has traced those values back even further than grade school to 600 years before Christ when the pagan philosopher, Aesop, used animal stories to teach the ancient kings of Asia Minor the same lessons in rectitude and service that I learned from the nuns in third-grade catechism. He taught them the basic tenets of eternal wisdom.

Wisdom is the knowledge of God's will. It is universal truth. Aesop's lessons transcend the barriers of religion, language, culture, geography, and time. They are as true and relevant for lawyers in twenty-first century New York as they were for the pagan royalty of Asia Minor in the sixth century B.C. Aesop's animals invariably suffer for their acts of pride, greed, self-indulgence, and obsessive ambition. They are rewarded when their conduct demonstrates the virtues of humility, integrity, kindness and commitment to community.

Law is the essence of community. The highest function of law is to foster community and to promote the development and enforcement of rules that safeguard the public from the excesses of power. Law fosters fairness and dependability in human intercourse and promotes justice and access to power for every member of the community. At our best, lawyers shield communities from the seduction of the notion that we can advance ourselves by leaving our poorer brothers and sisters behind or by trampling on the rights of the poor or future generations. Law, at its best, is a calling that asks us to transcend self-interest and spend our lives in service to community.

But law is also a path to power, money, and assets that offer the practitioner opportunity for corruption and abuse. Even the most virtuous attorney may sometimes get distracted by pride or ambition for the top of the heap. Aesop warns that that spot is usually nothing but a high place from which to tumble. Aesop's man who stares at the stars and falls in a hole reenacts a theme common to many of the philosopher's stories. Aesop understood that life, for most of us, is a struggle between self-will and God's will, between ego indulgence and community service. Like the frog who seeks to inflate himself above his fellows-until he explodes-ambition and self-indulgence often end in destruction. The lawyer who lies or bamboozles for a client, in the hope of acquiring money, fame, or power will find he's become not the king of the heap but, in Mike's apt description, "a pathetic, boorish lapdog to the highest bidder."

If we focus on professional success as the measure of ourselves, our work will devolve into ceaseless activity without personal or spiritual progress. Mike shows how the focus on self leads us to exhaust ourselves in struggles without meaning or purpose. Peace of mind, personal growth, and self-esteem come not by self-indulgence but by doing esteemable things. That often means resisting the impulse for easy victory and taking the more difficult path. Real success, in the form of personal fulfillment, is achieved when we take our eyes off the horizon of pride and personal ambition and focus instead on methodically performing the little tasks of civility and service. This is the lesson that the tortoise taught the hare.

This does not mean the lawyer should abandon healthy ambition. Healthy ambition does not lead an individual to lie, cheat, or bamboozle for a client. Healthy ambition is the desire to do God's will and enjoy his blessings. Mike's conclusions confirm my own experience: good behavior often brings good fortune-either from providence, from reciprocal altruism, or from the good will and trust that we gain among our fellows. There is, of course, no guarantee that mere rectitude will bring us legal victories or prosperity. But even if it doesn't, we will still enjoy our reputation. The reputation for trustworthiness, good judgment, rectitude, and discretion, the example of a life well lived, and the invaluable respect of our peers all exceed in value the illusory victories of money and fame.

Mike asks us to listen anew to Aesop's advice that we wear life like a loose coat and cling to nothing material; the easy choices do not usually give us the benefits we expected. If we ignore the call for service to God and community in favor of material success, we risk the fate of the country mouse who discovers that the material luxury of the city comes with the danger of a big hungry cat.

From The Foreword by: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

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