Welcome those moments of insanity

Welcome those moments of insanity
I had planned a column for this month on waiver of privilege — lawyers who, to their horror, spectacularly screw up via tech blunder and disclose confidential information. Then I had coffee with Jane Southren.

Southren is someone I’ve been admiring for a while from afar. After 16 years as a well-respected commercial litigator, she recently shifted her focus exclusively to business development. She is now director of professional development at Lerners LLP in Toronto, and offers brilliant, witty advice on her blog and via Twitter @janesouthren.

After several months of e-stalking, I took my own advice (see July 2012 column) and just picked up the phone. Southren agreed to meet me for coffee. During our visit, she said something I have been thinking about ever since, and voilà, this is a column about that.

I wanted to speak with Southren about my column because of her unique mix of in-the-trenches litigation experience and grace-under-fire wisdom about managing relationships. As we sipped our coffee and tea, our conversation wandered from my questions about confidentiality to general practice philosophies and, well, life. Southren graciously offered stories about times she really “stepped in it” from a client or case-management perspective, and how she got back up again.

To my surprise, she said she can’t fully trust an associate until she sees him or her under major pressure. If an associate performs despite the stuff hitting the fan, he or she has won her trust. The ability to stumble and get back up again shows professionalism and a resilience also worthy of Southren’s respect.

According to Southren, too many associates try to limit themselves. They’re afraid taking on a heavy caseload or a particularly challenging client, for instance, will trip them up and overwhelm them. This is the wrong approach. Associates can’t build the skillset they need, or earn credibility with their superiors or peers, without finding themselves overwhelmed, outmatched, or even exhausted at times. They should seek out these experiences and view them as opportunities, she said.

Whoa. This really struck a chord with me. So — to be clear — you’re telling me that when I was up at 4:30 a.m. that day drafting an affidavit with a client in Central European Time that I should welcome that experience?

Thinking this idea through (and writing it down here), it seems obvious. Of course it is the so-called “stretch” moments that shape and change us. This is the essence of the message Sheryl Sandberg has been promoting, that rather than trying to shield ourselves from discomfort, we need to “lean in” to it.

There is richness and a depth of experience that comes only with throwing oneself into the career ocean and riding the wave. By carefully selecting only convenient, manageable experiences, or measuring out a career “with coffee spoons,” as T.S. Eliot might say, one risks stagnation and unfulfilled potential.

I have to admit it almost feels like a betrayal for me to promote the idea of working more to associates. I can’t think of a single friend or colleague (seriously) who doesn’t consider it an ongoing effort to find the right mix of work and life, particularly when the busiest times of careers often coincide with parenting, setting up homes, and finding life partners.

I’ve emphasized the importance of health and wellness in this column many times, and have committed to regular exercise and meditation in my own life to keep an even keel. So I’m not suggesting here that anyone push themselves to an unhealthy extreme, but I am embracing Southren’s idea of being open to the moments of insanity as critical learning opportunities.

Looking back, it really does resonate with me that the moments when I’ve felt the worst have also taught me the most. They are also the times I’ve been able to share with colleagues and superiors, and in response, received genuine, heartfelt stories from them of similar tough times. These in-the-trenches moments forge a real camaraderie I’ve grown to cherish in my practice.

I’ve always been fond of the phrase, “a ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.” As lawyers, we’re built for the big case that challenges us, the quick thinking on our feet, managing difficult clients, juggling competing obligations. What do we miss by turning away from those opportunities?

So I’m taking Southren’s words to heart. I will strive to change my perspective as those inevitable moments of chaos arise and see the opportunity they present.  This is a hard job we’ve signed up for. I’m learning if I’m finding my work really challenging, I’m actually on the right track.

Thanks Jane. I owe you a coffee.

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