BOOK REVIEW: Linder & Levit, The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law
Review of The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law by Douglas O. Linder & Nancy Levit (Oxford University Press 2014)
Linder and Levit have – yet again – confronted some of the most challenging questions faced by lawyers who seek to find satisfaction in our careers. The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law builds on the authors’ first book, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law. One of the central questions posed in the first book—how do you become a happy lawyer—seems to be answered in part by the second book. Linder and Levit draw on numerous different disciplines that show a strong link between doing good work and being happy, between personal lives and professional roles.
The Good Lawyer emphasizes a set of qualities, skills, and attitudes shared by people the authors identify as “good lawyers.” As they note, lawyers who practice in different fields – intellectual property, securities fraud, employment discrimination – may need to develop distinct, and particularized, skills, but, regardless of their practice area, lawyers are proudest of themselves when they do meaningful work for clients about whom they care. Consequently, all lawyers, whether they work for private firms, the government, or in a public interest setting or as solo practitioners, can appreciate and use the particular attributes that Linder and Levit identify. Those attributes are addressed in nine of the book’s ten chapters, and they range from empathy to moral courage, cognitive skills, willpower, civility, honesty, and open-mindedness. As they explore the good lawyers’ attributes, the authors draw on behavioral economics, Tonglen Buddhism, cognitive psychology, and the law to support and explain their points.
While the book has some endnotes (under 30 pages, actually), it also has humor and even a checklist, although the checklist is primarily enumerated suggestions rather than a protocol. And it has lots of stories, which make the book even more of a joy to read. The stories provide context and drama. Linder and Levit visit courageous lawyers in the Jim Crow South, explore the psychodrama exercises Gerry Spence offers to trial lawyers at Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming, introduce Lex Machina, a Stanford project to create a database that helps lawyers predict winning strategies, and probe the expert testimony in the trial of Sam Sheppard.
While both authors are law professors, they argue for the importance of drawing on lessons that go beyond what a standard legal education might teach. For example, they analyze a story about a lawyer’s interaction with a client who wants to disinherit her son because she feels disrespected by her son’s wife. The lawyer does not just accede to his client’s stated request. He tries to understand the client’s true interest, and achieves an outcome she actually prefers, as well as one less likely to cause family disharmony, by not disinheriting the son. The lesson the authors proffer is that “wise lawyering” requires “a concern for the well-being of the client and the community of which she is a member.” (And, as a trusts and estates professor, I know the value of a story like this for my students.)
Throughout, the authors take “the common sense” approach of assuming (knowing that proof of these matters is impossible) that having virtues such as courage, empathy, compassion, self-control, humility, and the like increase the probability of doing good work. But the book is also more nuanced than a simple singing of praises to these qualities. In their discussion of these virtues, the authors point out how these virtues and dispositions might, in certain situations, actually undercut the work of lawyers. For example, they discuss how having too much empathy for clients makes it more difficult for lawyers to offer the necessary detached perspective and makes it more likely that they will be able to justify unethical behavior that advances a client’s cause. Thus, they advise empathy, but they also advise lawyers to “regulate” their emotions and to ensure adequate detachment in order to provide clients with their best counsel.
Indeed, the book is rich in advice and inspiration. Consider a portion from the end of the book that really summarizes their message:
“This has been a book, in no small part, about how you can become the kind of lawyer who can someday look back with satisfaction on your legal career. It is not a guide to being a successful lawyer, if success is measured by win-loss records, fame, or financial reward.. It also offers no promises of finding greater happiness in your career, thought that might be a welcome side effect from following some of its suggestions.”
If anything, the book is too rich! That’s because there is so much of value in the book to counsel law students and lawyers as they seek to develop, and maintain, self-respect. That means, then, that the book can serve as an empathetic guide throughout our legal careers, reminding us to ground our professionalism in our definition of success. Ultimately, the book reflects the beliefs of its authors that good lawyers are real people with actual clients and careers that matter – and that we can each become a good lawyer.
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Naomi Cahn is a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School and author of Finding Our Families: A First-Of-Its-Kind Book for Donor-Conceived People and Their Families (Avery Trade 2013, with Wendy Kramer).