Over the last several years our firm has written nearly 200 “On the Way to the Courthouse” pieces, which are reflections of partner, Mike Wells. Many of them are published in various state and local publications as well, including North Carolina Lawyers Weekly and the Clemmons Courier. A number of them have also been recorded for the Winston-Salem affiliate of National Public Radio and for the North Carolina National Public Radio network.
The Law of the Letter
It was just a letter, after all. But I came to see I had it all wrong.
Years ago as a young lawyer I got a call from an older gentleman who had a problem with a bill he had received. He was shaken that he was getting past-due letters.
I wrote a letter as a courtesy to the service provider to straighten out the facts, and it worked.
A quick conference and quick letter carried the day, and that was that. I brought no special skill or talent to the task. Just my time, and my everyday sorting-out-the-facts experience. The successful result would not get this matter spotlighted in N C Lawyers Weekly, but I came to see its success was of a different kind.
My initial too-narrow view of the value I had rendered changed over the next seven days. I received in rapid order a heartfelt voicemail message from the older gentleman, another vm message from his only child in Richmond expressing deep thanks for helping his growing-more-disoriented widowed dad, and a following letter from the older gentleman himself in his shaky handwriting. The older gentleman was a product of the Great Depression, and his worry touched a tap root of one of his bedrock values: you pay your bills, and on time.
I never saw my pro-bono client again. But I held on to his emotional letter of gratitude for many years. When I braved to clean out my desk’s center drawer I would read it again. It served to remind me of the charge, even in my active, swirling days as a busy lawyer, to find and give out the special currency of kindness I carried with me, much like the idle pocket change I carried home, unused, every day. And to appreciate again the power of what I had for so long mistakenly viewed as an ordinary thing.
Sometimes the most ordinary of problems contains any number of possible legal threads. If you slip too far into gauging what you don’t know, you miss the chance to solve what you do know: the importance of addressing real problems with real people by simply framing the basic facts and options and lending them your sorting-out voice of experience. And volunteering to do what many callers would often not know to do on their own: writing a quick letter, making a needed phone call, nudging another party to make a matter right, or making sure a more timid soul is not unfairly disadvantaged.
The solutions are often less about the letter of the law—knowing every little thing about every little part —than about the law of the letter: simply taking the time to offer your experience as a calibrator of facts and options when you allow another’s real life dilemma to catch your eye. And you do not have to be a lawyer to do that.
If you are a lawyer, provide any appropriate disclaimers a rough summary of a set of facts may require. Who knows? A years-later answer to a small question penned by the N C Court of Appeals could be an important one. But your most important task now is likely how you answer in the court of life what a Nobel Laureate stated is life’s most persistent and urgent question: what are you doing today for others?
What I’ve learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this: You possess a deep and valuable skill as a problem solver. You do yourself and others a disservice if you do not step out a bit and take more chances on the law of the letter. A chance you can help every-day citizens try to shed the tug and pull of some of life’s everyday problems, no matter how ordinary and routine those problems may seem to you. They certainly are not ordinary or routine to them.
The busiest among us, whatever your profession, will tell you a call or letter here and there in a full week of activity is not going impact adversely your ability to get your other tasks done for your family and your organization. And my, my, my, the good you can do.
My sense from this and other experiences is you have no real idea of the value you can render to others. Wordsworth called these “little unremembered acts of kindness.” You won’t get your name up in lights, but isn’t that the point? While some may be amazed by your acts of kindness, try surprising them anyway. Because kindness, especially for discerners of facts and solutions, is calibrated in different ways. And sometimes it’s sweetly measured out one letter at a time, in the disguise of a seemingly ordinary thing.