A Birthday Wish for Don

Yesterday was my oldest son’s birthday. He turned 40. His accession to this age reminded me of what I was doing 40 years ago, which was graduating from law school and moving back to Humptulips County from the Midwest. In two short weeks, I will be able to celebrate 40 years of practicing law – not in the official sense, since I didn’t take the bar examination until July and didn’t receive the results or be sworn in as a member of the bar until October. In the sense of a life lived, however, I immediately went to work as a lawyer my first week after my return to Humptulips County for the simple reason that I was a husband, a father and broke. Work was the only alternative. There was no hardship involved as I was eager to see if I would enjoy my chosen profession – it was brand spanking new to me then and filled with possibility. I was going to be a litigator.

Forty years later I am still practicing law. The joy of embarking on something new has long since become a deep rooted satisfaction that I seem able to help others achieve their goals. Mine is now an office practice – I act as a counselor to many and no longer visit the court room. The thrill that I thought I would receive from litigation was quickly replaced with a sense of profound disgust at the court system – the waste of time and money, the sense of lives stalled while fighting over past events, the realization that courtrooms are full of drama queens whom I found appalling, and the eventual realization that I was simply unhappy in this venue. So, after three years of litigation, I simply announced to my office that it was time for me to build a business practice and if each of the other attorneys (primarily litigators) would just give me their various bits and pieces of business matters that they handled on the side, I would try and make a meal of it and do my best to increase my workload.

This approach should not have worked and surely would not in today’s law firm climate. But, 1970 was a different era and law firms were much smaller and more focused upon being a partnership than a business. My senior partners undoubtedly shook their heads over me behind closed doors, but to my face they told me to proceed. It was another three years before I could completely jettison all trial work, but in that time I became a practicing business attorney, learning what I could from others and teaching myself what I was unable to assimilate. It was hard, slogging work of a kind that most current law firm associates would tire of quickly. But I began to find pleasure in the realization that I seemed to understand the mechanics of business and that I was fascinated with the many ways my clients found to earn a living.

It was this last realization that has sustained me as a lawyer over the years. People, as a species, are fascinating. We are all born; we will all die. In between, we all want the basics – food, security, shelter, and a sense that the essence of our lives will continue through the lives of our children. While my eastern Washington upbringing marked me with the inevitable prejudices of small-town egocentricity, I was fortunate to go to the University of Washington and meet many people whose variety of origination, color, experience and belief made my prejudices look small and embarrassing. My eagerness to learn saved me from those prejudices, as I found listening to others interesting and enjoyable and realized that the most interesting folks to listen to were ones with experiences and beliefs far afield from mine. I discovered that if I wanted to revel in my past, I could simply go home over a holiday and become re-immersed; if I wanted to learn something new in addition to my formal education, I could listen to others.

Thus began a life long interest in listening to other’s dreams and having the privilege of assisting in their birth and fulfillment. The older I get the more I realize that mankind is inherently looking at itself as a species in the wrong way. Most of us look fearfully askance at anyone different from the self we inhabit – different in things ranging from the big issues such as race, religion, sexual orientation or disability to small matters of distinction, such as dress, manner of speech or physical peculiarities. The practice of law has taught me that the better way is to realize the inherent creativity of all mankind. As a species, we have found we can survive in almost any environment, we have pondered and explained our very existence in myriad ways, and we continue trying to learn and “advance” while remaining limited by the hard wiring of our nervous systems. The struggle to overcome our limitations is the source of our creativity. I see that creativity daily in the ideas my clients bring to me for assistance in implementation, and I sense our basic ability to survive in the dignity of the hard work with which my clients attempt each unknown.

In short, I want to thank my son for the simple act of achieving 40, since it has caused me to reflect upon the many pleasurable years I have enjoyed at my chosen profession. As my son has grown, so have I. He, too, eventually chose a life as a lawyer, coming to the law rather later in life than I did. I wish for him that when he is the age I am now, he will be able to look back and find that his life was one of satisfaction – the satisfaction that comes from achieving many of your own dreams by helping others achieve theirs.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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