Brian Oten, NC State Bar
I got lucky. It was a Friday evening, mid-August, when I received the email – “You’ve Been Selected! We are happy to share that you have been selected for the Hamilton Durham Onsale….” Tempting though it was to jump into the ticket resale marketplace and gouge my neighbors of their life’s savings, my wife and I took two friends to see Hamilton in November. And yes, it lived up to the hype. (Shout out to Amazon Music for the free streams these past few years). As someone who doesn’t go to many plays or musicals, I loved every minute of it. I was most struck by the variety of the show – the music, the choreography, and perhaps most importantly, the messages conveyed in each scene. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius for writing and composing this thing, but I digress.
There’s one particular moment that’s always stood out to me – George Washington is (finally) about to put Alexander Hamilton in command during the Revolutionary War, and he cautions the young Hamilton that “history has its eyes on” him:
Let me tell you what I’d wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
These lines rolled over and over in my head for days beyond my first listen. The lack of control over who tells my story is tough to accept; it can even make me feel like giving up at times. Why fight so hard for what I think is right when someone will come along after I’m gone and take full editorial control over what my actions stood for, or why I fought in the first place? But as I grew in frustration over this thought — this inevitable lack of control over what my life would mean or how my life would be interpreted — I realized I was wrong. Yes, George/Lin-Manuel was right – we have no control over who tells our stories. But we have full control over what our stories will be. We are the authors of our own stories. Every day, every decision. Every action, every reaction, every interaction – they are ours to do with what we choose. And these decisions write the lines of our own stories that will someday be told by someone who is compelled to tell the story just as we crafted it. It’s simultaneously beautiful, empowering, and burdensome. As lawyers, perhaps more than any other profession, we are put in positions where our interactions with each other, with our clients and with members of the public uniquely (and perhaps disproportionally) inform our communities about the entirety of this profession. Each day, as lawyers, or peers, or neighbors, or simple acquaintances, we choose how we will impact lives, both in terms of the work we produce and the way in which we carry out our responsibilities.
So what will be your story? Will you choose to return the hostility displayed to you by opposing counsel? Or will you choose to professionally calm yourself and work through the hostility to find a solution? Will you brush off the client who calls you for the fifth or fifteenth or fiftieth time this week requesting a status update on his case? Or will you take that step back, remember that this case means the world to your client, and call him back to explain why there is no movement yet? Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I feel entirely justified in returning that hostility or ignoring the phone. When I feel I’m right, doing so can even make me feel satisfied and “right.” At least for a while. But if I can catch myself, I know that taking the path of professionalism will inevitably lead to mutual understanding, respect, and the personal contentment that I’ve done what I can to positively contribute to whatever the outcome may be. And those professional choices, whether I want them to or not, add lines to my story. Just as your choices add lines to your story. A story that will be told one day, by someone, somewhere. The story may not be yours to tell, but it’s yours to write.
What will be your story?