Andrew Whiteman, Whiteman Law Firm
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Thus begins Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, a collection of talks presented by Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese monk who founded the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1950s and helped popularize Buddhist ideas in America. The book has become a modern classic of Zen thought.
The opening line’s simple teaching offers a profound commentary on the tendency of Zen students to become so caught up in the pursuit of spiritual development that they lose sight of what drew them to the Buddhist path in the first place. This idea has many applications to ordinary life. Remembering the magic we felt in the beginning of something can help us persevere when times get tough.
But can we use “beginner’s mind” to maintain a healthy and balanced outlook on law practice? Most definitely! Recalling our earliest experiences with the law reminds us of why we fell in love with it in the first place, before our lives became overtaken by the day-to-day challenges of competing deadlines, client expectations, civic duties and family responsibilities. To illustrate this point, I offer three remembrances that help me restore equanimity when things become chaotic.
I recall clearly the day I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. As a high school senior in Cincinnati, Ohio, I and another student interviewed two lawyers for a class project. The lawyers were on opposite sides of a social issue and agreed to meet with us to discuss their views. After listening to them expound on the merits of their respective positions, I quickly decided that what the lawyers were doing was fascinating. By the end of the second interview it dawned on me that I could do this too! I was just as smart as those lawyers. All I needed was a law school education, a job, and a cause! From this experience, I have always remembered how blessed it is just to be among the few who have the intellectual ability, character and work ethic needed to succeed in our challenging career.
After graduating from law school in 1980, I moved to North Carolina and began my first job with a small general practice firm in Raleigh. I remember vividly my first case in Wake County Superior Court. I was defending a woman who was sued for violating a covenant not to compete. Because I was scared, I thoroughly prepared! As it turned out, my client had the better argument on the facts, and the law was on her side. I presented the evidence and legal authorities to the judge and won the case! My takeaway from this small victory was very profound—our system of justice works! Not only that, it works really well most of the time. A lot of thought goes into the making of our laws, and for the most part they make sense. In the courtroom, evidence is presented according to rules of evidence. We have great judges in North Carolina who work very hard to be fair and make the right decisions. These are not small things! Every day, we should be very grateful for our system of justice.
Another thing I learned very early in my career is that lawyers are, by and large, tremendous people. Bright, earnest, friendly, helpful, capable, dedicated, and civic-minded! Our law licenses state that we were found by satisfactory evidence to possess the upright character and competent knowledge of the law necessary to be admitted to the practice. We live by an oath that states we will uphold the laws and faithfully discharge our duties as attorneys. We govern ourselves by a written code of ethics. It is awesome to be able to work with so many wonderful professional colleagues!
Truth to tell, I am not always this happy. Often, I find law practice to be a tedious grind, difficult and contentious, even on a good day. But I have learned that I am able to restore a joyful and grateful outlook by returning to my earliest experiences with the law. Maybe this technique can work for you, too.