Zen and the Art of Kicking Ass (As a Lawyer)

 In Behind The Practice

“Your own awakening and liberation, as well as the liberation and awakening of all other species, have now become your highest career.”

Last week, I reread these words from the ceremony I participated in in August 2009 to formally commit myself to life a service in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

In the same week, we also attempted to post a job description entitled “Kick Ass Corporate Associate” with top law schools in the US  I say “attempted to post” because most of the law schools refused to enter the description into their systems with this title.  (My favorite part of this was that the question of whether such a posting befitted Yale Law School made it all the way to the law school dean’s office.  Imagine, the dean of one of the best law schools in the country considering the title of a job posting.)

What do awakening and liberation have to do with the title of a job description?

At the end of 2008, partly as a result of my study to formally join Thich Nhat Hanh’s community, I came to the conclusion that my life needed to be more integrated.  No longer could I have one set of values and one persona for work and another set of values and another persona for life outside of work.  This meant two things:  one, my work had to express my deep desire to serve; and two, my work had to afford me the freedom to walk in the world exactly as I am.  I was no longer willing to wear a “uniform” to work (figuratively, of course, living in Boulder, I’ve worn flip flops and jeans to work for years).

After a period of reflection, I decided that I could best fulfill my commitment to my own liberation and the liberation of others through my work as a corporate lawyer.  I realized, however, that I would need to change my business in two important ways.  First, I would need to work with clients that shared my values around the power of business as a force for good.  Second, I would need to allow myself to authentically express myself in the business world.   For me, that means, among other things, to conduct my professional life with an open heart and with joy.

The decision to post the “kick ass” title flowed from that joy.   As Steve, our “Chief Get Shit Done Officer,” prepared to post the job description, he pointed out that the title “Corporate and Securities Associate” was incongruent with the body of the document.  In the body, we had made an effort to express our culture as a firm.  Making, for example, the first job requirement “an open heart and mind” and identifying part of the compensation as “fun and personal fulfillment.” But the title of was so, well, plain vanilla – so boring.

Jochem, Steve and I tossed around some different titles, and the only one that clicked for all of us was the “Kick Ass Corporate Associate.”  It made us all smile.  As the recently appointed Chief Happiness Officer, I knew then that it was the right one – even though a voice in the back of my head worried about whether prospective candidates would take us seriously.

Ah, the seriousness of it all.  I remember in law school orientation we were told that, like the medical professional, we would be taught a language that was unique to our profession.  The law was not for everywoman – it was something that could only be understood by those who undertook the rigorous course of study on which we were about to embark.  And, like doctors, we learned a bedside manner and way of being in the world.  Serious was a big part of it (as was plain vanilla – I remember our moot court professor instructing us to dress and groom ourselves so that we would not stand out in the courtroom).

It is true that as business lawyers, we often deal with very serious stuff.  The wrong advice on a transaction, for example, could result in hundreds of thousands even millions of dollars in adverse tax consequences.  And everyone in our organization is committed – sometimes to the detriment of sleep and sanity – to ensuring that we are delivering excellence in everything we do.  But we are equally committed to not taking ourselves too seriously, and we would all like to be more everywoman than a Supreme Court justice.

I received the most profound compliment a couple of years ago from Teju Ravilochan, my friend and soon to be CEO of our client, Unreasonable Institute.  He thanked me for being both “driven and human.”  I’ll admit that at times it seems a difficult balance – and to some even a paradox – to be a humanitarian business lawyer, but perhaps no more so than operating as a “sustainable business” or a “social enterprise.”  And, at least for me, there’s no other choice.

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