Sunday, August 2, 2020
(A bit of the harvest picked from my parent's garden in north Georgia yesterday)
Last Thursday my neighborhood book club discussed work by poet David Whyte. This book club has been especially life-giving during the pandemic. I have deep admiration for every member of the group and always learn from our meetings. In March and April, we briefly moved to Zoom, but were unable to capture the same energy. We then decided to meet in person, bringing chairs to a member’s spacious driveway that backs up to common green space.
The work we discussed last week was not actually a book, but rather a few hours of David Whyte’s musings, only available in audio form. Much of the talk involves Whyte reading poetry – primarily his own, Rainer Maria Rilke’s and Mary Oliver’s – and relating that poetry to questions many of us ponder in midlife.
While I can’t locate the exact quote in the long recording, Whyte used a harvesting metaphor effectively. Whyte suggests that if we don’t slow down to be present for the harvest times in our lives, the fruit will rot on the vine. He reminds us, for example, that our child will only be five years old for a relatively short season. By being present for the harvest, I think Whyte means celebrate (among other things).
The practice of law, at least as it appears to be carried out by most major firms, leaves precious little time for celebration. In fact, during my handful of years at two major law firms, I can only recall a single occasion of truly pausing to celebrate the harvest.
This occasion involved a closing dinner. A celebratory dinner after closing a deal to buy or sell a company is relatively common in M&A practice. In my somewhat limited experience, however, law firms often organized these dinners to impress clients and tee up future deals. Networking, not savoring, is the focus. Often only the partners and clients attend closing dinners. The associates (or at least the junior associates) are usually back in the office working on the next matter.
This dinner was different. King & Spalding partner Russ Richards had just closed two relatively large deals in the same week with the assistance of same four associate attorneys. While the hours had been grueling, even by BigLaw standards, I didn’t expect to be invited to a closing dinner. Surprisingly, Russ not only invited the other three associates and me, but also encouraged us to bring a dates. Moreover, this was not a dinner to impress the clients; no clients were invited. We did not spend much time, if any, setting up future deals. We just celebrated work well done with wonderful wine, food, and company.
If there were more of this sort of unadulterated celebration of the harvest in BigLaw, I imagine the turnover would be much lower. And maybe one of the reasons Russ Richards excelled in a 45+ year career with the same firm is because he created moments of celebration and reflection like these. As I have argued before, I think one of the ways to make BigLaw more humane is to work in some time for celebration and rejuvenation, perhaps in the form of sabbaticals. A formal promotion to “senior associate” around the four-year mark, followed by a brief sabbatical (even as short as one month) would do wonders for the profession. Even longer sabbaticals, perhaps tied to a project improving the community, could be worthwhile as well.
Of course life is not, and probably should not be, constant celebration. To stretch Whyte’s metaphor further—as anyone who has tried their hand at farming knows—fruit that is the product of a season of sweat tastes sweeter than fruit obtained from a grocery deliver service. The gritty, difficult, back-spasm-inducing times are an important part of the process. That said, especially for those of us bent more in the direction of overwork, making some space to celebrate the harvest is essential.
Finally, and importantly, we should make a point to notice and celebrate the achievements of others. Whyte seems to focus on being present for the fruition of our own work, but I am convinced that pausing to celebrate the accomplishments of others can be even more worthwhile.