In my first year of practice back in the early ‘90s, I broke down in a senior partner’s office with an unexpected and life-affirming consequence that has stayed with me powerfully all these years later.
I had been working the hardest I ever worked as a lawyer – for about three weeks straight I went in at 7 am and didn’t leave before 10 pm (I have never been someone who pulls all nighters). It was a corporate deal with a senior partner in the firm. This man had a scary reputation. He had been known to terrify young lawyers and students.
On the morning of my breakdown, we were in his office discussing the file when the phone rang. The partner took the call, and then hung up, full of gusto and enjoyment for this work, and said something to the effect of, “Ok let’s work through lunch to get this done”. With that pronouncement, I broke down and started to cry. The partner looked at me and asked what was wrong. I explained through my tears that my husband (also a first year lawyer, who worked across the street) and I had lunch plans – we felt like we had hardly seen each other lately. The partner immediately responded by saying, “Of course, go! We’ll do this work later…and here’s $20 for lunch!” I was so moved by his unexpected compassion, kindness and generosity. I went for lunch with Andrew (though I didn’t accept the money).
What has stayed with me for all these years was the fact that my vulnerability, my most imperfect response, opened up a chance for this partner to show me his humanity, in the form of his compassion, kindness and generosity. From that day on, even if I heard that he had scared another associate or articling student, I knew he had a very kind side to him that wasn’t actually so hard to access. He was no longer scary to me. I remember him fondly, actually.
As Brené Brown shares in her powerful book Daring Greatly, her research has shown that “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.” (p. 12) Vulnerability creates connection. By telling you this story I am not suggesting it is a great idea to break down in tears in a senior partner’s office (though if you are curious about the power of tears, have a look at this blog post too: Dialing Up the Vulnerability: Lessons from Brew Creek). I am saying that aspiring to be an excellent lawyer and to have a life, to be an AWAL, is good and important, and may be a messy process. Vulnerable moments may be necessary. And, there may be breakdowns and those breakdowns may have unexpected, long-lasting and, indeed, life-affirming consequences.