(Originally published in San Diego Lawyer magazine, November 2009)
Our work as lawyers is very difficult. The conflict and pressures we face are not normal or healthy. How do we lead a “normal” balanced life when our long work days are so often contentious? One avenue, humor, can help or hurt us in two very important ways, and I have the scars to prove it.
Humor can first help us deal with others. If you take time to listen and study, most truly successful lawyers use humor to include not exclude. Their humor makes fun of themselves or the situation, but seldom ridicules to hurt or gain advantage. Quite simply, smart aleck humor is easy and often counterproductive, while inclusive humor is a helpful hidden art form. Ask yourself, who would a jury like more: Joan Rivers or Ellen DeGeneres? I have learned through many mistakes that there is great power in Ms. DeGeneres’ type of vulnerability, and great weakness in cutting into others.
And when you think of it all the emphasis we lawyers place on civility relies on these same principles of respect and understanding of others. Whether we are being funny or serious the basic rule of civility is the same: don’t use your skill unfairly to hurt or gain advantage. I’m not saying we tip toe in our advocacy or humor, just don’t be cheap in either.
Humor also helps us deal with ourselves. I consult with trial lawyers on courtroom, practice and life issues and I see patterns in that work. One of those patterns involves perspective. No matter what the work-life issue is — from a simple case challenge to a profound life change — if we take time to look humorously at any situation we can gain perspective and move more easily toward resolution, or at least ease the pain.
The humor/civility connection exists here too. We tend to think civility only applies toward others, but it applies to ourselves too. Studies show lawyers share two primary characteristics: perfectionism—shared with others–and pessimism—uniquely ours, which make us so hard on ourselves. Seeing humor in our mistakes allows us to not only respect and understand our humanness, but most important, to forgive ourselves. Or at least take a step in that direction.
In the end, a lawyer’s balance is always shifting. Humor provides a handrail.