Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2014

Parting Thoughts

How to Be Happy and Practice Law
By Stephen Griffith

Ask yourself, at the beginning of your career, what you want to be remembered for at the end. Once you answer that question, you have found your pole star. Thereafter, you will practice law on your own terms, independent of the timesheet and the compensation memo, and be a success.

Ask yourself, when opposing counsel has done something you don’t like, whether there’s a reason you don’t know. Give the other lawyer the benefit of the doubt. If that person were in your own firm, you might be the best of friends. It is a great accomplishment, and a sign that you are a professional, to develop true friends through the adversary system.

Define for yourself what it means to “win.” A jury verdict is a crude yardstick the world uses. You don’t control the facts of a case and you rarely control the law. Your goal and duty is to use your mind, and your understanding of your client’s deepest needs, to maximize within your ability what will most help your client. If you succeed in doing that, then you have won.

Treat every matter as a chance to educate yourself — about people, about history, about the ways of the world. When you’re a lawyer, someone is paying you to go to college. When you’re a probate lawyer, as I was, someone is paying you to understand human nature.

Celebrate the sparkle of life. I may forget the names, but I will always remember the facts on which my cases turned: a two-year diary with one page missing; a saw they called “the Swedish harp”; a goldfish frozen in its bowl; the design of a post in a chain link fence; the unusual gift of a Super Bowl ring; a check for $400,000 tucked in a shirt pocket; the writing of a woman who never wrote; the woman who couldn’t remember her name; the man who couldn’t identify his signature; the law firm that produced its files out of order; the old road where a girl once played. These sound like chapters from Sherlock Holmes. And they were.

If you work in a large law firm, take advantage of the opportunity it presents. The name of the firm is the name of a process by which each of you over time can create your own law firm and law practice. Over time — if you put your mind to it — you can end up working with the lawyers and staff you most enjoy, and for the clients whose matters most fulfill you.

Open your eyes to the people you work with, for among them can be your lifelong friends. In my time, I have walked and run and hiked and climbed. I have rafted and rowed and sailed, played tennis and basketball. I have skied cross country and biked across the country. Each of those activities was with a different friend. And all of those friends were in this firm.

The larger a law firm gets, the more word is replaced by number. Sometimes it seems as if numbers are the only common denominator. For a firm to be worth working at, those who make decisions on hiring and compensation must have the insight to base part of their judgment on the intangible. Fight with all your might for the intangible. Otherwise the current of numbers will sweep you over the falls.

Understand the nature of wealth. Wealth is a relative, not an absolute, concept. Wealth is the relationship between what you have and what you need to be happy. If you have what you need to be happy, then you are a wealthy person. You are, even now, probably wealthier than the lawyers you read about in American Lawyer. If you understand yourself, you can be one of the wealthiest people on earth.

Ask yourself who you are, in addition to being a lawyer. Law should not take all your time. Law will not take any of your time, when you get to the point where the four of us are now. Be ready for your next life — and the life after that. Be a human being, always, lucky to have lived in this place, in this time, with these people.


The foregoing thoughts are based on advice to younger lawyers, given at a retirement party for four partners at Stoel Rives in February 2014. The author is happily enjoying his retirement doing all the things he did while practicing law, only more so, plus a few others fortune has thrown his way. He spends most of his time teaching “The Constitution in American History” in high schools, while also thinking about the civic life of Portland and planning the next trip he and his wife will take with their children.

© 2014 Stephen Griffith

return to top
return to Table of Contents