Humility and Compassion: Larger Lessons to Be Learned from the Government Shutdown

As it is for many businesses and individuals, the current government shutdown is a real crisis for our practice. Our work involves cases against the Federal government. We handle FTCA malpractice cases nationwide, as well as vaccination injury matters. Right now, we can’t get paid. Settlements can’t get approved or processed. By and large, much of what we do is grinding to a halt. I don’t have to describe the implication of that for any business and its employees. My point is not to rant about the shutdown, although I could easily do so.

Instead, let’s look at some lessons to be learned – and I don’t mean political or economic.

To be an effective lawyer, one must have competence, but probably more important is confidence. Let’s face it: Most good lawyers also have big egos. It goes with the territory. We are confident; we fix problems and we control our destinies. The confidence and ego that makes for a good lawyer has a downside, however. It often comes at the expense of humility and compassion. Of course, we care about our clients. We are committed to helping them, but at the same time, we know that their often messy and unfortunate lives are not ours. We would never let that happen to us. It’s an almost unconscious assumption that we can control our existence, meaning by implication that those whose lives are not controlled have somehow fallen short.

The fact is that for all of us there is much we cannot control or change, whether it is disease, natural disasters, random accidents, the dishonesty of former business colleagues or our own poor decisions made in the past – or even a government shutdown.

For me, the shutdown is a pointed – and quite difficult – reminder that we are not always in control. It is all quite humbling. We will get through this crisis somehow and I hope that because of it I will have learned (or re-learned, actually) some lessons in humility and compassion. Of course, our clients need us to be very competent and confident – and, in fact, we are very competent and confident. But our clients also need our compassion. By that I don’t mean a patronizing sympathy that flows downward from a sense of superiority. The reality is that as lawyers, smart, educated and sophisticated as we are, we are not so different from even our most unfortunate clients - and we are certainly not better. If we recognize that fact, we can more effectively serve those we are charged with helping. Genuine compassion will make us betters lawyers.

Lessons in humility are not fun. They are stressful and painful, often very painful. The current situation certainly is for my colleagues and me. At the same time, I also know it is a lesson I probably needed. Coming out of it, I hope I will be a better man and a better lawyer. Does this somehow make me more forgiving of our so-called political leaders? No way. They have failed us miserably. What we do have some control over, however, are the lessons we can learn from this disaster.