what lawyers can learn from maya angelou.


At 86, Maya Angelou continued to be a force of nature. Teacher, writer, poet, friend, mentor, mother, activist, dancer, singer, avid reader. And so much more than we could possibly even know. Visit her Facebook page and it’s clear that she did all of these things, relished them, right until the very end.

Every single one of us should take a page from her inspiration. Lawyers, most especially. We need what Maya offered the world. And most of us are the last to see this connection between our lives and hers.

Let the brain go to work, let it meet the heart and you will be able to forgive. – Maya Angelou

Lawyers are trained to be rational appliers of reason, facts, precedence. We are told and taught in law school that our opinion doesn’t matter — that it’s all in the logic of our argument and the facts that support it. Our emotions, our hearts, are removed from the equation. Intentionally.

This is no way to go through life. Especially a life that for many of us is consumed by our profession. Let your brain meet your heart. You will do better work. You will do better for yourself. Because emotion has a place in the law, and it must have a place in our daily experience of life. To deny this is really to deny a fundamental part of the human experience.

And the “forgive” part — this is important. We lawyers tend to be perfectionists, type A personalities who expect a lot from our ourselves and from others. So much so that we give ourselves and our profession a bad name.

But here’s the thing. We’re not perfect. We screw up. We need to forgive ourselves, embrace the screw up, learn from it and move on. The same applies to others — especially the people we work with and who work for us. Don’t be the stereotypical lawyer who yells at anyone who gets anything the slightest bit not perfect. Rigidity in perfectionism does not serve us, our clients, or our profession well.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

Ah, yes, how you made people feel. “Feel” is one of those words that doesn’t have a place in the lawyer’s vocabulary. Is it surprising that our profession is mostly hated? <It was hard to pick a link for this one because there are so many great articles on lawyer-hating. It’s a popular topic.>

Essentially, way too many of us don’t give a rat’s booty about how we make people feel. Not our coworkers, opposing counsel, even our clients. We’re arrogant, ego-centric, and don’t forget about that “show no emotion” mantra that’s drilled into us from law school on.

To wit: the word “client service” is an oxymoron in the legal profession. But our service to others — how we make them feel — goes to the heart of our connections. The very connections that make a life worth living, really.

Do you really want to do great work? And feel great about doing it? Then give a damn how you make other people feel. Yes, you may have to unlearn a lot, thanks to law school and the example set by others (unfortunately). But it will be worth it.

Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good. – Maya Angelou

Gratitude and its expression in our lives — such a simple concept that holds so much power. For those wanting proof of its power and importance in living a fulfilled life, it’s there. Hard science now supports what Maya Angelou knew:

  • Gratitude increases social connection – which studies show is essential for health and well-being
  • Gratitude increases altruism – which is a strong predictor of happiness
  • Gratitude decreases depression and improves optimism and positive emotions which in turn increase well-being, boost creativity, benefit relationships, and impact longevity

Grateful people are happy people. Do you really need any further encouragement?

I wager that lawyers, more than most, wield an incredibly strong negativity bias. First of all, we humans are hard-wired for it, unfortunately. Add to that a profession that keeps one mired in the negative (for the most part). What chance do we have?

Actually, we have a great chance at overcoming our negativity bias. By choosing and living with and in gratitude.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you. – Maya Angelou

I really can’t add much here. The legal profession is rife with examples of the very bad things that happen when you make money your goal.

If you love practicing law, then do it well. Do it in a way that supports the life you want to live. I have no idea if this will also provide the financial support you (think you) need. But why would you sacrifice a life lived well for a hellish existence that paid well? Working hard doesn’t solve the core problems faced by an unhappy lawyer. It just exacerbates them.

And if you aren’t finding purpose and some sort of happiness, or at least genuine satisfaction, in the practice of law, then leave it. I have a [recovering lawyer] friend who helps people. Talk to her.

Why? Because …

If you are going down a road and don’t like what’s in front of you and look behind you and don’t like what you see, get off the road. Create a new path! – Maya Angelou