Last year's end-of-the-year essay provoked a chain of events that turned into something strangely liberating. I wrote of the great emotional travail that comes of representing those facing imprisonment. Bearing others' sorrow oppresses, and I felt the weight of it especially keenly in 2009. I wrote, and some appreciated the candor, others scorned what they saw as too much emotion. By mid-year, lines were drawn. I received snarky comments about whether my mental health had improved. I seized the opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff, and have cut loose from old associations that seemed to cost so much more than the benefit they brought. After a little pushing and shoving, I was released from the tedious regard of lesser shepherds. For these gifts, I am thankful.
The year now ending was a tough one. A bad economy cost my firm revenue. I laid a person off for the first time, and had a junior partner flee the chaos that comes of making payroll, overhead and other expenses each week without fail while making daily court appearances, writing briefs and answering too many phone calls. Old debts oppress. But the volume of work increases. There is no shortage of need in the world. There seems to be endless stream of questions without answers. Mothers ask after adult sons long since beyond the age of mothering. Often the fearful forget that lawyers counsel about the law, not mental health. My sense is that the world is meaner on the cusp of 2011 than it was one year ago.
But somehow, I am far more at peace this year than last. While I do not approach the new year with light-hearted optimism, I face it nonetheless with resolution. Each of the new year's trials will require cunning. Yes, I know the sound of keening despair when a cell door closes, perhaps for decades. But I know a simple truth: No client is the sum of his worst moments, and I am more than the battles I wage. If I cannot say the prospect of more warfare is joyous to behold, I can say, with confidence, that the warrior's life suits me. I've tried to imagine doing other things. Nothing else satisfies quite so much as bearing another's sorrows and trying to maintain my balance as I walk along the sharp edge of despair. "Life," Theodore Roosevelt once said, "is strife." I never have to worry about whether I am alive, and for that I am grateful: there are so many empty eyes to my right and to my left each day. I howl, therefore I am.
The new year begins and I count the many years that have passed. My children are adults now. They visited for the holidays, and I knew the simple pleasure of sitting to the side and watching them. They are complete persons: a medical student, a librarian in the making, a wanderer so much like me watching her is uncanny. I watch them, and I see them bring a fiance, a lover home. I know their road is now unfolding before them, and I cannot do more that give them comfort along the way, a safe place of refuge when time and chance throw us together. I sit by a fire and I am warmer than the blaze. I have given life, and I have more living yet to give. Perhaps one must grow gray to learn the truth that giving is so much better than receiving. A new daughter enters our family this new year in a mid-year wedding, and I am overjoyed with the hope that she will accept what I have to give.
As the old year ended, I bore down on a manuscript all my own. A few weeks ago, I hit the send key, and sent it to my publisher, all fear that its words were a flop. Today word comes that the words work well. A new birth this year. A book. It seems like a great adventure to toss something more formal out into the world. I've written for newspapers and blogged for many years now. I enjoy the quick and casual gratification that comes of instant publication. But I want more. This year I will get it. Already, new projects take shape in my mind. I imagine many early mornings alone with a keyboard. This is a more silent form of battle: me against myself in a struggle to overcome a sense of futility.
But the real battles I foresee for the new year are the courtroom struggles I have come to know well. I have three trials set for January; a jury has already been picked for one. Another is a court trial. All pit men against a state that wants them kept behind bars for a long, long time. Next month, I am their hope. The year will bring me many more battles, and new clients, all of whom want more than I can deliver, but all whom deserve everything I can muster. I look to the new year as another wheel. Will this be the wheel that breaks me? Or will it spin again and again?
Somehow the answer to that question matters far less than it used to. This year, I look forward with pride. I am a trial lawyer, bred for battle and destined for conflict. I know this simple truth and it sustains. It sustains even if there seem so few who are prepared to walk alone, risking all, and, in the end, losing all they have to give. Bring it on, I say, of the year's sorrows. The joys that come are sufficient to withstand any pain, and if that joy proves insufficient, I know that is because a trial lawyer shares the lives of those he or she represents. We come, we go, and for a time we dance and challenge the gods. It is enough for me.
A happy, and, more so, a brave New Year to you all.