Lawyering with Lovingkindness

One of the best classes I have taken during law school has been … tai chi. Classes offered at the BU Fitness and Recreation Center are available for audit with your law school tuition. They are a wonderful opportunity to get outside the Law School; I’ve also taken yoga at FitRec.

If you’re like me and have no idea what tai chi is beyond something you’ve heard of old people doing in parks, this video (pardon the quality), shows my teacher’s teacher demonstrating the technique used in the BU class. We begin with serious stretching and warm-ups, meditate for five or ten minutes, talk through a koan or another pearl of wisdom, and spend an hour or so perfecting a routine that shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to do — if you’re doing it right. So, we are patient, and we practice.

I think I like tai chi because it reminds me of the Buddhist path I was exploring before law school. Like the law or seated meditation, tai chi requires extraordinary care, but it’s the kind of attention that grounds you in moment and place — the opposite of the law’s effect on my well-being.

In this post, I want to reflect on how my life as a lawyer can be informed by the precepts I took at my Buddhist wedding ceremony at Austin Zen Center, shortly before entering law school. As I am assuredly a rank amateur Buddhist and lawyer, don’t expect profundities, but here’s what I’ve got. (Precept language borrowed from the San Francisco Zen Center.)

Miracles of Each Moment (2014); acrylic on paper by Kazuaki Tanahashi

This Lawyer’s “Way”: Precepts for a Principled Career

1. A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life.

OK, a lawyer obviously does not kill. That would be against the MRPC! Beyond that, a lawyer lives this precept by practicing in a way that encourages outcomes that sustain, rather than oppress. Movement lawyering that encourages an end to the death penalty, enables survivors to rebuild their lives, or discourages inhumane or substandard prison conditions exemplifies this precept.

2. A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity.

Practice law with a generous heart. Serve your client, not yourself. Serve your community, not your bottom line. Do not abuse the privilege and influence given to you; rather, use it to do good. Do not bargain or plea dishonestly. Argue with integrity.

3. A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages open and honest relationships.

Remember those rules about entering into relationships with clients? It’s not only good advice to avoid these entanglements, but a whole lot simpler and more peaceful. Honor your relationships by treating your partner with respect and love. An imbalance of power does  not a peaceful life make. In working with clients who may have experienced relationship trauma, be mindful of its lasting effects.

4. A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication.

“Do  not lie” might seem too obvious to state, but it can be a real challenge when the truth does not serve the outcome you seek. Avoid the temptation to “bend” the truth, but know that the truth can be slippery. Respect the bounds of attorney-client privilege and confidentiality.

5. A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity.

We hear all too often about the high rates of alcoholism among lawyers. Sobriety during the workday ought to be a given, but be mindful, too, of the temptation to overindulge, or keep up with the old-timers, after hours. Respect clients’ struggles with substance abuse. Be a support to those in recovery, through word and deed.

6. A disciple of Buddha does not slander others but rather cultivates and encourages respectful speech.

Understand that everyone has their story, and it brought them to this moment. Do not disrespect them by speaking without careful consideration. Do not be quick to anger or insult. Consider the power of kind words when tempted to argue or raise your voice. Serve your clients by being the kind of lawyer people speak highly of, not the kind on whom negative stereotypes are built.

7. A disciple of Buddha does not praise self at the expense of others but rather cultivates and encourages self and others to abide in their awakened nature.

As a lawyer, you may have to market yourself to stay in business. But do so with authenticity and truth, not braggadocio or clever misdirection. Praise your colleagues for their successes. Recognize excellent work in others. Results matter, but it’s not about winning just to win.

8. A disciple of Buddha is not possessive of anything but rather cultivates and encourages mutual support.

Support your clients, within the context of your professional relationship. Do not impose your views on your clients, at the expense of their own goals. Be accessible, and use language your clients will understand. Be a resource, not a roadblock.

9. A disciple of Buddha does not harbor ill-will but rather cultivates and encourages lovingkindness and understanding.

Respect colleagues; respect “opponents.” Recognize that one may become the other. Conflict is natural, but it’s not personal. Imagine lovingkindness for your courtroom adversary; then, live it. What better attitude could you have at trial?

10. A disciple of Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures but rather cultivates and encourages awakening, the path and teaching of awakening and the community that takes refuge in awakening.

In all actions and interactions, at all times.

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