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Writing vs. Law; the price of conflict

My writing life began with a short story I wrote in 1990 called The Dare on the Bridge. The bridge, in case you’re curious, is the Coleman Bridge that crosses the York River between Yorktown and Gloucester, Virginia. It is a non-fiction account of a day spent with my youngest son and four of his teammates on a youth soccer team called the Williamsburg Wizards. I’ll have more to say about that story in a future blog, but today I want to focus on the time at which it was written.

I was in my mid-forties and had been practicing law for eighteen years, first as a prosecutor and then in private practice. The practice of law is a tough way to make a living. It pays well, as you know, but for every courtroom melodrama you have seen on television, there are hours of “watching paint dry.” I’m guessing your job or profession, whatever that is, likewise involves routine that can be boring, so I’m not suggesting law has any monopoly there. In the early 1960s, I got up early to watch the first space launches from Cape Canaveral. What could be more exciting, I wondered, than sitting in the nosecone of one of those rockets, counting down the seconds to launch with mission control? My family had a special connection with those early astronauts because we lived near Langley Air Force Base, where those with “the right stuff” trained. I later came to appreciate the thousands of hours of practice and study that went into preparing those men for what they did, and I have no doubt some of it was numbingly routine. So even the most glamorous of jobs come with that price.But unless your job happens to be that of a lawyer, you may not experience the kind of persistent conflict that comes with the practice of law. The more successful I became, the more clients I acquired, and clients come to you for one reason: they have a problem. The moment you agree to represent them, their problem becomes your problem. And somewhere across town or across the state, the source of that client’s problem--an employer or a spouse or a business partner or an insurance company--is hiring a lawyer to contest whatever it is your client is telling you. This is the nature of our system, and in many important ways it is a good system, at times a magnificent system, but conflict is always at its core. And that conflict is hardly limited to your client’s issues with “the other side.” At times, the conflict is just as strong and stressful with your own client, whether because of personality clash, resistance by the client to your advice, fee issues, or any one of dozens of other sources. And perhaps worst of all, there are times when the conflict is within yourself, because you believe your client is either dead wrong, a bully, or an idiot, and your job is to put as much legal lipstick on the pig as you can muster.

Some lawyers eat this up. Their feet hit the ground early every morning just itching for a fight, the next “challenge.” They can’t wait for the series of contentious phone calls, unpleasant office conferences, and arrogant judges that will constitute their day. I’ve known many of these lawyers, fought with some, practiced side by side with a few, and respect them all (well, almost all). They perform a vital and necessary role, and they usually earn the big bucks they are paid.

But years of conflict became for me a bit like water torture, where a disgruntled client, an unreasonable judge, or a pain-in-the-shorts lawyer on the other side was little more than a drip, just part of the process, but in time, those drips added up, the next one a little harder to take, and the one after that somehow inflicting more irritation and pain than the one before. It became a process of attrition, with each drop of the conflict water wearing away a little more of my soul.Then I found writing. Alone in my study with a pen and some creativity, I discovered a process that reversed the soul’s attrition that eighteen years of law practice had brought on. How that happened will be the subject of the next blog.

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