The Fearless Lawyer

by Joel Orenstein


In my practice as a lawyer, I seem to come face to face with my fear on an almost daily basis. Although this fear is often about the latest calamity to have befallen my clients, oftentimes it is fear associated purely with what is befalling me. I often experience fear about my own performance or fear of looking the fool, by second guessing how I will be received or perceived by others. I also experience fear when faced with things that are out of my apparent control – this can be appearing before an unfamiliar or difficult magistrate, or having to deal with fellow practitioner who has a prickly reputation.

It seems that in legal practice we often find ourselves in situations where, if we had a choice, we would run a mile. This is because we deal with people at their worst, in an environment can be extremely toxic, combative and played at very high stakes. The most common way we deal with this is to put on a suit of armor – we project a persona of the bulletproof – that nothing, no matter what the context or circumstances, can touch us. For some of us who have been around a while, the result can be a patina of hardness that seems rusted on. We are like the aged homicide detective that no matter how gruesome, we only need look at things forensically and don’t, and won’t, feel anything.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an essential part of our humanity. Emotional reactions to circumstances and events are actually what make us human – and no amount of suppression or denial will stop this. Burying an emotional reaction doesn’t make it go away, it just plants the seed that is certain to manifest sooner or later, and usually in circumstances that really knock us for six.

And the truth is that we need to feel to do our jobs – as so much of what we deal with has emotional content beyond what the bare facts are.

We need to be able to understand people; their failings, their strengths, their insecurities, their fears and anxieties. And the measure of our ability to do this is often our ability to understand ourselves.

That said, it takes a lot of courage to really look at our own humanity – to allow ourselves to feel all those feelings that are oftentimes so painful, because they touch us at our very core. Allowing ourselves to be open in this way takes a special type of fearlessness. It is a fearlessness that has its motivation in compassion for ourselves and our predicament, that allows us to be fully present, often for the first time, with the entirety of our being.