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Finding peace among the conflicts

By Jeff Bleich
President, State Bar of California

Jeff Bleich
Bleich

This month I’ll pass the State Bar gavel into the wise, gifted hands of our new president, Holly Fujie, knowing that the State Bar is destined for great things under her leadership. While presidents usually use this final column to recount the accomplishments of the past year, I’d like to share some perspective from traveling thousands of miles and visiting with thousands of lawyers and clients across this state.

For 12 months, I’ve met lawyers in every sort of context — from casual cocktail parties to contentious board votes. Some lawyers wanted to praise the State Bar and some wanted to bury it. But we debated our issues, challenged each other’s assumptions, and time after time, somehow found a way to resolution. As a lawyer I’ve enjoyed reliving and recounting the battles we had; and that’s probably why I’ve stayed a lawyer all these years. But being honest about what we do, the most important work has never been in the battle itself, but in securing the understanding and peace that follows. In the end, what we do as lawyers is an extraordinary thing; we resolve even the fiercest differences among ourselves and our clients without violence and without recurrence. While lawyers love to use metaphors about destroying their adversaries — cutting them off at the knees, kicking their butts, thumping them, etc. — the true miracle of our profession is that time and again we end these differences without violence and force. 

My greatest joy as a lawyer has not been working with people who think and live as I do; but engaging with those who think and live as I don’t, and discovering what is good and admirable in them. After each case, my clients and their adversaries alike are not “plaintiffs” or “defendants” any more — they are people. People just like anyone else with their own individual styles and stories, and birthdays and loved ones and favorite foods. I can disagree with them, sometimes strongly, without having to demonize them or ignore their essential humanity. 

Lawyers experience this capacity for reconciliation every day. The companies, the bitter rivals that we represented yesterday, may merge tomorrow; the neighbors who detested each other may discover that their children are in love and that they will be joined as family. The people we declare in the heat of trial we absolutely can’t stand today may one day be our colleagues, our in-laws, our friends.

We see this repeated at every level. In Iraq today, the Shiia and the Sunni and the Kurds share common land and names and relatives and fears. They can’t avoid each other, they can’t eliminate each other. They must learn to live together. Just as the Hutus and the Tutsis, and the Serbs and Croats have somehow — despite all the atrocities — learned to live together. And in our own country, the blue states and the red states will eventually have to learn to work together again to solve our common problems. If history has taught us nothing else, it is that eventually — no matter how deep or fierce our differences — we must always do what laws are meant to help us do in the first place: find a way to live together.

It is the peace we bring rather than the battles we fight that make me proud of our profession. From the legal service lawyer in Fresno who drives hundreds of miles to help a mother keep her child, to the estate lawyer in Palm Desert who untangles a grieving family’s affairs, to the small business lawyer in Auburn who helps a person fulfill their dream of independence, we represent the highest aspiration of our society: the ability to realize dreams and heal conflicts through respect for common principles instead of brute force.

This universal truth — that the measure of success in any battle is the peace that follows — transcends every discipline. We see it revealed not just in the lives of lawyers but also world leaders, scientists, soldiers and ministers. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address concluded by exhorting that “both sides join in creating . . . a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.” The Reverend Dr. King told us that “[s]ooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace.” And General George Marshall, who saw on the battlefields better than any of us the true costs of living in an uncivil world, urged that “there must be effort of the spirit — to be magnanimous, to act in friendship, to strive to help rather than to hinder. There must be effort of analysis to seek out the causes of war and the factors which favor peace, [for it is on] those great undertakings . . . which world equilibrium will depend.” 

Astronomers, who view the history of our planet with both time and distance, have perhaps distilled this perspective best. As one of them explained:

“Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot [in space]. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

As much as we may think otherwise during the heat of our legal battles, we are all much more alike than we are different. Scientists tell us we have about 3 billion genomes each. Of those, 99.9 percent of our genomes are identical in each of us. We look at our different hair and our different skin and our different height and weight and those things that seem so important — they represent one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up. 

And we are linked to each other’s past and future as well. My favorite scientific fact is that because atoms never die, every atom in each of us has likely passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming us. Atoms are so small and we are each so full of atoms that came from those who lived before us that, according to the Jupiter Scientific Web site, each living person on earth has approximately 200 billion atoms that were once in William Shakespeare’s body.

When we step back like this, and have perspective, we see that we are, in the end, just cousins, sharing a small wonderful journey for a short number of years. 

Reminding ourselves of these facts — allowing ourselves the perspective to think beyond the immediate slight or hurt or frustration to see a way to resolve a dispute without bloodshed — is what makes all virtues possible. This is true of wisdom, faith, courage and most of all forgiveness. They are all, ultimately, about perspective.

The perspective to admit what we have done and acknowledge our mistakes, so that others won’t suffer the way we did — we call that wisdom.

The perspective to see that we share bonds with people we’ve never met, and never will meet, who look and sound and act different than we do. We call that faith.

The perspective to take a risk — not because we need to but because it is the right thing to do — we call that courage. We call that sacrifice. 

And when we have the perspective to know that our enemies today may be our friends tomorrow, and that we can’t saddle our children with the hurts of our past, we call that forgiveness. 

So these are my final thoughts as your president. As lawyers, don’t look only at the battle today, but also toward the peace that must follow. We serve best when we remember that everyone, our adversaries no less than our clients, is a human being. We do our greatest service not when we manage to shout over or stifle the voice of another, but when we reconnect a voice that has been silenced. Conflicts will never go away — they are inevitable. But the special gift we can offer as lawyers is in dealing with those conflicts with the wisdom, courage, faith and forgiveness to not merely decide the issue, but to allow friends and foe to go on afterward with dignity. 

It has been a great gift to discover these lessons from you, and it has been an honor to represent you all.

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