Among friends, small talk often revolves around the fascinating life of a plaintiff’s attorney.* And it’s not just because I am directing the conversation. Really, many of my friends think plaintiffs’ work is very intriguing and ask me questions about what it’s like to be a plaintiff’s attorney. Often, the conversation turns to politics and I’m told something along the lines of "Oh, you’re such a liberal." After looking at them with a dull stare, they backtrack and say, "I’m sorry, of course you’re not a liberal. You grew up in Eastern Washington!" Another dull stare. My response to both comments is to kindly point out that although stereotypes are useful to prevent a small human brain from exhaustion or explosion, I prefer that they be used as a starting point, not as a destination.
I know, I know, we just made it through another political gauntlet and you thought we were done for another four years. Personally, it seemed like I was actually running through a long row of soldiers with their arms outstretched and their fists clenched, and as they pummeled me they laughed. One side was wearing blue and one side was wearing red. Now that it’s over and the theatrics have subsided, we should all be friends. And not in the Pete Seeger/Kumbaya sense. More like the World War I Christmas truce depicted in Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noel.[i] I’m serious. Let’s step off the dogma train, even if it is just for a brief period.
Some of you may be skeptical of relaxing your stance and befriending someone from another party. Or better yet, contemplating a life beyond political persuasion. I certainly don’t want you to curb your skepticism. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as the life of a skeptic. I speak from personal experience, I think. You’re never really sure if you are awake, even after you pinch yourself. You just wonder if your dreams have advanced into the 21st century.
But before you accept my invitation to get rid of, or tone down, the dogma, I have to warn you; I have discovered that people expect you to belong to one party or another. In fact, they think you are crazy if you don’t. Robert Pirsig famously said, "Sanity is conformity to what is socially expected."[ii] So, if you can’t bear the thought of appearing insane, just pretend to conform. And when you have some alone time, repeat these four words over and over: subvert the dominant paradigm. Or something like that.
The problem with the dominant paradigm, i.e., plaintiffs’ lawyers are liberals, is that it is based on a stereotype. The editors haven’t given me enough space to go into detail, but this is a stereotype that conforms to certain rules, both written and unwritten, that often don’t reflect the reality about who we are and what we do. I think Clausewitz’ analysis applies here, although he was analyzing the rules of war:
All these attempts [to develop a theory based on material factors alone] are reprehensible. . . . They exclude Genius from the rule. Everything which was beyond the reach of such blinkered, shabby wisdom was [held to] fall outside the scientific realm, to be in the domain of Genius, which exalts itself above the rules..[iii]Â”
Strict adherence to the dominant paradigm and the "rules" regarding who you are, will inhibit your capabilities and will stifle the creative genius within. So, even if just for the holidays, I invite you to ponder your most deeply held beliefs and ask yourself if you could rewrite the stereotype, what would it say?
As winter solstice passes and the days become longer, I will be writing my own list of rules. Although I will acknowledge the limitations of doing so, I will recognize that, above partisan rules, civil rules, or "rules of the road", as plaintiffs’ lawyers, we represent the weak in face of the strong. We give hope where all would be lost. And this is beyond political persuasion.
[ii] Pirsig, Robert. Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, (1991), p. 384
[iii] Rogers, Clifford. Clauswitz, Genius, & the Rules, http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Sumida/RogersRules.htm, translation of On War, by Carl von Clauswitz, p. 136.
*This article was published in the December 2012 edition of Trial News, a monthly publication for the Washington State Association for Justice.