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

an antidote.

Throw a stone online and you’ll hit an article discussing how unhappy and depressed lawyers are. I’ve written about it here, as well.

What’s the antidote? There likely are many. Sleep more. Eat better. Exercise. Meditate. Stop being a lawyer.

One I’ve been practicing for awhile now is gratitude. If you’ve read many of my posts you may note I tend to write only about those things that really excite me. The practice of gratitude is one of those things.

Interested in exploring gratitude and what it can bring to your life? Try these exercises from Martin Seligman (psychologist in the study of happiness and author of Flourish – a recommended read).


Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

I did this with a former teacher of mine. It was by far one of the most amazing and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. It’s an incredible gift to both people involved.


This one is perhaps less daunting. Commonly called the “three blessings,” I call it the “three gratitudes.”

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

I practice the three gratitudes somewhat religiously. I used to blog about them, and now keep a written journal. My family and I often do it together at the dinner table. No money-back guarantees offered, but I can attest that this is a powerful way to retrain your brain to focus first on the positive.

And not to state the obvious, but we lawyers are paid to focus on the negative. We spend our days mired in it. The reason I left litigation? Because, always and every time, and even after getting the client exactly what she wanted at the outset, everyone involved was miserable from the experience. Including me. The negative was overwhelming.

In my experience, it requires thoughtful, intentional, and consistent effort to combat the negative. One antidote: the regular practice of gratitude. Give it a go. Let me know what you think.

links i like.

It’s the day of love. And opportunity. To express thanks and gratitude.

As I’ve written before, you can set yourself apart by showing some love at a less-expected time of year.

This weeks’ links center on this theme: ways to show gratitude (and not) to clients, referral sources, employees — and in the way you conduct your business year-round.

The links:

Let’s start with what not to do — whenever you’re gifting.

Some frugal (yet still festive) business gifts that share the love. My favorite on this list? Making it personal.

How to keep your clients in love with your service?

Even lawyers can make clients fall in love with their business. Right?

Saying thank you is important. My favorite on this list: pick up the phone and make a call. Simply to say thank you.

Consider that gratitude is a business strategy. Not opportunistic holiday BS.

And while we’re on the topic, here are five ways to cultivate gratitude in the workplace.