Curb Your Enthusiasm (Update)

In yet another excellent post. Eric Mayer at the  Unwashed Advocate explains why he’ll pass on a young lawyer who is sniffing for a job.

“You know, Eric, I’m really passionate about defending soldiers.”

I smiled and made attempts at keeping the conversation light. Though I left with the feeling that he hoped that a seed was planted for future cultivation.

The fact is, I’d never hire him. Ever.

“Ever” is a very long time. What could have caused such a reaction?

So, why won’t I hire him?

He’s passionate.

I don’t have time to deal with that crap.

But, but, but…isn’t “passion” the word that crops up everywhere these days?  Aren’t we told by legal marketers and social media gurus that the key to success is to be passionate?  Isn’t the sage advice to follow your passion?

I talk to passionate people all the time. Some are clients. Some are potential clients. Many are family members–moms, dads, wives, brothers, sisters, and mistresses. Others are third-party advocates (victim, veteran, and the like). They are passionate. Often very, very passionate.

They know what they know and believe what they believe. They become flustered and angry at the thought that someone could believe otherwise. When I explain that the opposing side has a logical and (generally) accepted reason for a particular stance, I’m met with the same high-powered anger and frustration.

They blurt, “How can they possibly think that?! How can you say those jerks have solid and compelling evidence?!”

Passion isn’t just the rage these days, but a dangerously misguided perspective. It goes by other names, zealot, true believer for example, but it’s all the same thing. Lawyers who have confused their purpose with that of their clients.

The characterization of passionate has become increasingly pervasive, mostly because lawyers think it sells.  Clients like to think their lawyers “feel” exactly as they do, are as outraged at the injustice of it all and as utterly devoted to their  self-serving perception of “justice.”  The axiom is “justice is blind,” and they believe their lawyer should be as well.

Sadly, the blawgosphere has fed this misguided view.  It’s congealed the sides into teams of like-minded cheerleaders, who whip each other into a fervor through hyperbole and validation. If this were merely to bolster the fortitude of lawyers who rationalized away their responsibility to zealously represent their clients, this would be a wonderful thing. But that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s about proclaiming that our side is the side of good and the other side is the side of evil. We’re right. They’re wrong. No matter what they say, they are liars and we speak truth, for we are the side of truth and justice.

It gets worse.  There are lawyers who post rants directed toward the ignorant and angry, feeding them what they want to hear and in return receiving the adoration of their fans.  The problem is that these dialectics are remarkably unpersuasive, often dead wrong, and guaranteed to make any reader worse for having read it.

It’s easy to mount an argument when there is no one to argue against you, pointing out every inch of the way the error of your reasoning or the failure of your foundation.  But that’s not how it works in court, and that’s not how lawyers function.  We aren’t pundits, pontificating in the comfort of our easy chair with only sycophants around us. We face prosecutors, judges and juries, and they get to both contradict our positions and determine whether we’re out of our minds.  And they do.

Whenever someone tells me they’re “passionate,” I have the same reaction Eric does.  It tells me that they prefer to shut their eyes as tight as possible and sing “lalalala” at the top of their lungs whenever the arguments against them are made.  They believe. They believe too much. They can’t grasp that their belief isn’t shared by everyone, which makes everyone else either wrong or crazy.  And they can’t understand why they lose.

Feeling passion makes a person think they are flawless, and they see the other side as obviously and irreparably flawed. How dare someone think otherwise.

As lawyers, we are hired to analyze everything dispassionately, call it as we see it, and make the most of whatever hand we are dealt. If we are passionate, we fail at all three. The last thing we should do is practice in an area where we feel passion.

As a person, I can be plenty passionate.  As a lawyer, I cannot.  As a lawyer, my duty is to be effective in providing my client with the best possible outcome, regardless of any “passion” I may feel.

You see, priests “believe,” people “feel,” but lawyers “think.”

My experience tells me that passion usually results in one of two things: poor legal reasoning or unintended pregnancies.

Keep your passion. I’m with Eric.  I’ll stick with effective.

Update:  Some of the comments to this post made me think of this, so I had to add it in:

Proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost…

To paraphrase Patton, the object isn’t to die for your cause but to make the other poor bastard die for his.

Check our  Jeff Gamso’s post on this, where he offers a great perspective.

26 thoughts on “Curb Your Enthusiasm (Update)

  1. SHG

    Perhaps you missed the point. No one “thinks” with passion and emotion. When a lawyer is guided by passion, he’s “feeling”; the one thing he’s not doing is “thinking.”

  2. Lesley Stevens

    “Passion” is referenced constantly in politics these days, as well. The host of a local radio show criticized a candidate for a “lack of passion,” recently. Maybe one of the problems we have these days is politicians who are “passionate” instead of thoughtful.

  3. Val

    Uhhh… Passion is just generally a shorthand way of saying that you have a strong work ethic and you’re willing to put in the time and effort required to be an effective worker. It’s a way to signal that you’re not a lazy slob.

    It’s also used to indicate that this is something you actually want to do and not just a second choice because what you want is available.

    I mean it’s become so formulaic as something to say in an interview that to an extent it’s just a box to be checked.

  4. Bruce Coulson

    Perhaps it’s that the passion is misdirected? After all, there have been numerous posts that emphasize that for an attorney to prosper, they must really want to practice law. In other words, they should be ‘passionte’ about their desire to be practicing attorneys. They should have a feeling for the law; but not for individual cases. When it comes to casework, that passion should be channelled into hard work. (In fact, given the amount of work required to be a good attorney, I’d imagine that there would have to be some passion driving the lawyer to do their best.) An attorney who is only passionate about one type of case is likely to do only adequate work when other cases arise; whereas a lawyer who is passionate about doing his best, at all times, no matter the case or client, is more likely to do their best in every case, no matter what the case, the client, or the issue might be. So, I think that passion has its place in the law; but the passion that firms would be looking for is an inner-directed, ‘I’m going to do my best no matter what’ energy, rather than an outer-directed ‘I really care about these cases’. The latter implies a feeling of ‘These other cases that you’ll assign me? Yeah, I’ll work on them, but I don’t really care enough to do more than the bare minimum.’ Which clearly is NOT what a law firm should want in an attorney.

  5. Tamar Birckhead

    As someone who’s been practicing criminal defense for two decades and considers herself both an effective and passionate advocate, I’m confused by your post. Why the dichotomy? To persuade a prosecutor to accept your plea offer or to convince a jury to acquit your client requires a certain amount of “passion” as well as skill and intellect — but I suppose it depends on how you are defining the word. For me, it includes not only a commitment to your role and belief in your defense, but a certain amount of grit and moxie. The “best” defense attorneys I’ve worked with have combined all of these. Also, given the relentless stress of the work — particularly for those of us who are public defenders — it’s foolish to count out young lawyers who actually care about the client population. Of course, this is just my two cents, about which I feel some “passion.”

  6. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Sure seems like an impassioned argument for not being passionate!! Personally, I like passionate people who passionately and logically advocate for their “truths” . . . However, the real trick is the mindset to be equally passionate about evaluating new data and arguments presented that were not previously considered. Then, when warranted, rapidly adapting your passion to these newly revealed “truths” . . . Which leads me to proclaim, “I’m always right!! Until, inevitably, I’m wrong. At which point I admit I was wrong, adapt my thinking, and go back to being right again. Rinse. Repeat. Die.”

  7. SHG

    Caring about clients isn’t passion, but humanity. Being zealous isn’t being passionate, but having a desire to do the best possible job. Another commenter says it’s short hand for worth ethic, to which I say bullshit.  You may view yourself as effective and passionate, but you’re either wrong or using the wrong words. 

    Since I don’t know you, I couldn’t possibly have an opinion on your effectiveness, but many people attribute “passionate” to themselves without appreciating what it really means. Or maybe you aren’t as effective as you could be if you weren’t as concerned about being passionate. You may want to rethink your self-assessment.

  8. SHG

    Typical of nice folks, it’s become ubiquitous without the slightest clue as to its actual meaning.  Try this :

    pas·sion (pshn) n.

    1. A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.

    2. a. Ardent love.

    b. Strong sexual desire; lust.
    c. The object of such love or desire.
    3. a. Boundless enthusiasm: His skills as a player don’t quite match his passion for the game.

    b. The object of such enthusiasm: Soccer is her passion.
    4. An abandoned display of emotion, especially of anger: He’s been known to fly into a passion without warning.

    So any of these define the type of lawyer you want to be? 

  9. Michael Drake

    “Passion” for the law in this context obviously means nothing more or less than “strong” “enthusiasm.”* Which is about as inapt to being a lawyer as “ardent[] activ[ity], devot[ion], or diligen[ce].”** And hardly anywhere near as disqualifying as, say, tendentiously reading a common phrase to score cheap points against an unemployed young lawyer who isn’t even around to defend himself.

    If, on the other hand, the claim is that people who claim to have a “passion” for law are frequently just bullshitting, I have no objection.

    * See, e.g., [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]
    ** See [Ed. note: Ditto.] (defining “zealous”).

  10. SHG

    Was there some cheap point scored against an unemployed young lawyer who isn’t even around to defend himself?

    I assume you’re referring to Eric’s post, but he didn’t name the young lawyer (who was not unemployed) or write anything that would embarrass anyone. There was no cheap point scored. Perhaps you’re already blinded by your passion?  Nouvelle definitions to conform with current pretend meaning doesn’t change the point: passion isn’t about diligence. Diligence is about diligence.

    And yes, most people who claim “passion are just bullshitting. But that doesn’t absolve those who are “passionate.”

  11. Dr. Sugmund Droid

    I’m funny how? I mean funny like I’m a clown? Like a comedian? Funny in the head? Funny like they used to say about homosexuals? Or just simply, “he’s funny like that” funny?

    On a more serious note, lawyers should be passionate about at least one thing — the U.S. Constitution, dammit!!

  12. SHG

    But they’re not. Passion is emotional, while diligence is intellectual. Emotion impairs intellect. It’s possible to be both passionate and diligent, but not as diligent as one would be if dispassionate.

  13. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    But au contraire, mon frère. Passion releases, or maybe more precisely, acts as a catalyst for mankind’s energy, while diligence furnishes, well, nothing more than diligence. Ergo, the term “due diligence” — roughly translated, “just enough to get by” . . .

    I submit, however, that true greatness depends upon diligence and lots o’ energy, as well as a few other things . . .

  14. Michael Drake

    “It’s possible to be both passionate and diligent.”

    I think that’s what I just said.

    I’m a bit baffled by your subsequent suggestion that someone who is passionate can’t be as diligent as they could if they were dispassionate. What empirical theory of psychology is that based on? To be diligent, you need motivation. To be motivated, you need to be guided by a desired outcome. Whether your desire is “properly” motivated will depend on how legitimate you think your chosen outcome is (i.e., successfully persuading a court that the client deserves the requested relief v. telling truth to power v. winning at all costs v. other) But there’s no ridding diligence of all emotion, enthusiasm, or “passion.” Not if we’re talking about human diligence, anyway.

    Last word’s yours, if you want it.

  15. Jordan Rushie

    There is a difference between being “passionate about the law” and being “passionate about the practice of law.”

    Does your blood start to boil every time you hear about an insurance company, who is clearly in the wrong because insurance companies are always bad and evil? Congratulations, you’re passionate about the law. Which is a shame, because you’re so blindly entrenched in a point of view that you can’t comprehend that sometimes an insurance company might actually be correct, often to the detriment of your client.

    On the other hand, law sucks as a profession. The hours are long, pay sucks, student debt is a bitch, and you can be sued for malpractice or disbarred for making mistakes. To make it, I think you have to be somewhat passionate about the practice of law.

    When I opened my practice, I called my former boss that day, who is usually full of good advice. His wisdom? There was dead silence. Then “…just keep plugging along. You’ll be fine.” It sounded stupid at the time. All I could think was “James, I just quit my job and opened up a practice, and that’s all you have to say?! C’mon, you can do better than that!”

    About a year in, that’s good advice.

    Every time I get stiffed on a fee, or get my ass handed to me in court, or a client says “I’m gonna hire the guy with more grey hair on his head, but thanks for the fee two hour consult…” all I can think is “…just keep plugging away.”

    Why keep plugging away? I dunno. But I think there has to be a degree of passion, perhaps about your clients’ welfare or the practice in general.

    Otherwise what’s the point?

  16. SHG

    It’s my blawg. I always get the last word if I want it. Your permission isn’t necessary. As you haven’t gotten it by this point, there isn’t much point to going in circles. As my pal Bennett likes to say, I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you. We’re past the explaining part, but maybe clinging too hard to passion has made it impossible for you to understand. That’s a shame.

  17. SHG

    Otherwise what’s the point?

    The answer isn’t passion, unless you’re the bride of Rachel Rogers. It’s self-respect, integrity and self-motivation. You aren’t a “passionate about the law,” but a hard working young lawyer who isn’t going to let himself or his client get beaten. It’s not about “love.” It’s about hard work, and you’re prepared to do what you have to do to succeed.

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