Lawyers in Community: A Lesson in Precession

Jennifer Tull
Law Offices of Jennifer Tull
506 West Seventh Street
Austin, Texas 78701
Telephone: (512) 472-1919
Facsimile:  (512) 472-1806

International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers
Annual Conference
November, 2004

Lawyers in Community: A Lesson in Precession

During the spring and summer of 2003, twelve lawyers from Texas decided to breathe life into The Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.  By doing so, we hoped to promote the principles of Collaborative Law to attorneys and the public, thereby increasing our individual and collective ability to enjoy the practice of family law.  Although being on boards of directors for various organizations was an area in which we had all had experience, we were unprepared for the precessional effects that have resulted from our common desire to bring Collaborative Law to our colleagues and clients.

“Precession” is a term borrowed from astrophysics that refers to the action that occurs at 90 degrees to a body in motion.  R. Buckminster Fuller explained it like this:  When the bumblebee goes after ingredients for its honey, it inadvertently spreads pollen around the vegetation.   The bee is looking only to gather components necessary to nourish its community.  By moving toward this goal, however, the bee creates the means by which plants are able to regenerate, providing a necessary step in the balance of our environment.  The balanced environment allows humans to survive on this planet.  Humans, in turn, have the intellectual ability to effect positive change in the universe.

Simply put, precession refers to the “side effects” of moving toward a goal.  It teaches us that the things that occur as a result of our taking steps to move toward our stated purpose are the main benefits of our actions, not the direct actions that we intend to take.  Did the bee set out to save the universe?  Probably not, yet that is the precessional effect of his honey-making behavior.

Here is another example: You want to improve your health, so you want to eat naturally-grown vegetables.  In order to get the food you want, you hire a gardener to tend the plants.  Because the gardener now has employment, income and a permanent place to live, he can feed his family and send his son to school.  The son grows up to be the scientist who finds a cure for cancer.  You did not set out to cure cancer, yet it is the precessional effect of the actions you took to better your life.

The full precessional effects of any action we take may never be known to us, and in fact, our job is not to know the sphere of influence we have effected.  Our job is to continue doing the next, most beneficial thing for ourselves, given the circumstances as we know them.  We do, however, know some of the precessional effects of our work, which are outlined in this article.

Precessional Effect Number 1: Connection.

The members of the CLI-Tx board of directors were professional acquaintances before we embarked on this journey.  We had stood toe-to-toe as adversaries in cases; warmed chairs on committees and counsels; read and relied on each other’s scholarly works.  Some of us probably considered others on the board as friends, but except for one or two people I had allowed into my circle of intimates, I would not have said that I had the kind of relationship with most of these people that would be considered close or connected.  The CLI-Tx launch changed all that.

To a large extent, this happened because of one person, Elizabeth Ferris of Ferris Consulting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Liz had worked with collaborative lawyers in Wisconsin to launch their state-wide campaign, and we met at the IACP forum in Galveston in 2002.  During my first visit with Liz I felt that she had the kind of motivating energy that we needed, and I recruited her to come talk to the Texas group.  We began working with Liz in mid-May, 2003, and she led us to a successful launch of the Institute in mid-August of that same year.

Working with Liz Ferris gave us a unity of purpose – a kind of commitment to a vision – that allowed us to be vulnerable with each other, and to make mistakes and course corrections with enthusiasm.  It allowed us to become intimate friends with a stake in each other’s well being.  We learned the importance of doing your part (and only your part) and trusting others to do theirs.

After most of our work with CLI-Tx  was completed, Liz Ferris has gone on to work with several other Collaborative Law organizations, including the board of directors of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, which has had its organizational challenges in its short life.  Liz successfully transformed an assortment of individuals who were geographically, professionally, ethnically, and emotionally diverse into a cohesive force whose transformational potential knows few limits.  She did this by doing the next right thing – for herself – under the circumstances as she knew them.  She trusted that the individuals’ belief in their common goal would inspire them to do the next right thing for themselves, and it did.  Liz Ferris played a large role in clearing space for those involved in the international Collaborative Law movement to feel connected to each other and to the larger purpose we all serve.  Consequently, I believe the precessional effects of our multi-faceted stampede toward peacemaking through promoting Collaborative Law will be as far-reaching as any we have seen in our legal community.

My test of whether I have a connected relationship with someone might boil down to this: Is this someone who would have something meaningful to say if asked to speak at my funeral?  Anyone could read my curriculum vitae and quote from things I have written, that’s not connection.  I am connected to people who “get” me.  Those people are the ones who look through the words I have written or the things I have said and done to see a hologram of who I am encapsulated in each of them.  I believe our experience as members of the board of directors of CLI-Tx has created connected relationships.

Precessional Effect Number 2: Mindfulness.

The concept of mindfulness may be foreign to many lawyers.  It certainly has not been taught or encouraged in our training or our business.  Mindfulness refers to the practice of being fully present with whatever you are doing, thinking or feeling.  Mindfulness requires that we learn the difference between the past, the present and the future, and choose to be in the present.  It allows us to decide upon and take the next appropriate step for us, given our present circumstances.  The CLI-Tx launch was a huge undertaking.  It required us to simultaneously develop and fit together intricate pieces of a complicated puzzle – web site, printed materials, membership criteria, press packets, etc., – in fewer than 90 days.  Bringing our full attention to our task was the only way we could meet our deadline and our lofty goals.

In our relationships with others, we can only fully experience the wholeness of ourselves and the wholeness of the other when we commit to dwelling with the other in our present experience of them.  This cannot happen if we are watching the clock to make sure we can make our tee time; it cannot happen if we are secretly ruminating about the dispute we had with our landlord this morning.  For that matter, we cannot be mindful about our golf game if, during our back swing, we are thinking about the nasty letter we’re going to write.

Being present and mindful also requires that we acknowledge and process feelings we have at the time we have them rather than stuffing them away, only to find that they come back to haunt us at a later time.  If you feel angry about the way you have been treated, use that feeling as an opportunity to connect with that person by telling him the truth about how you feel.  This allows you to stay present and clean in your behavior.   In the collaborative model, we call it, “transparency.”   If, for instance, you feel hurt by your wife before you leave for work but you do not process that feeling in a way that allows you to feel that you have connected with her, you will be more apt to vent the original anger plus the frustration you feel about not being heard when you make your first telephone call of the day to some unsuspecting client.

Mindfulness is an individual practice that asks us to learn the difference between thoughts, feelings and experience, and apply those distinctions in our daily interactions.  In a fully-connected relationship, all participants are mindful, and there is an invigorating exchange of energy.  We cannot expect others people to walk into our office or our boardroom ready for such an exchange.  But we can do our part – take a moment to become centered, focused and present before we meet with others so that we are mindful when we are with them.  We then give ourselves the experience of nurturing ourselves with the interchange, and give those with whom we come into contact the opportunity to do the same.  Even if the others do not have a clue about what is happening, they will know that they have been heard.  They will view  you as someone with whom interaction is a positive experience, and that reaction can never be a bad thing for you.

Precessional Effect Number 3: Integration.

When we fail to make connections with others in our lives, we begin to lose connection with the various parts of ourselves. It is easy to  disconnect with the feeling, spiritual nature of our being, especially when we feel that we cannot safely expose those parts of ourselves at our workplace where we spend about half our time.  When we ignore those parts of ourselves during most of our waking hours, it becomes difficult to find them again in the comfort of our homes and the context of our intimate relationships.  Fortunately, the converse is also true.  When you spend most of your day connecting with others, it is difficult to discard the ability to connect when you leave your office.  Connecting with those around you and experiencing that connection in a real way will make you whole again.  When you practice empathy and compassion in your office, the part of you that is empathic and compassionate reaches out for your mate, your children and your friends, as well.  Voila!  An integrated, whole, happy, satisfied, contented, enthusiastic being!

Precessional Effect Number 4: Joy.

The result of our board’s work, under the guidance of Elizabeth Ferris, on the CLI-Tx project was many fold.  We now have a successful organization that provides support to more than 200 members and information to the public, who have been looking for a better way to handle their family law matters for decades;  We have had the experience of collaborating for our own benefit, and for the benefits that we perceive extend to our families, clients, colleagues, and society as a whole; We have discovered the joy that follows from feeling passionate about our work.

When we are mindful and present with the experience of doing our job in a joyful way, the experience of doing our job in a joyful way is what matters.  We gather information and present it to lawyers and the public with the clear intent of being heard by them.  Our intent is to connect with our colleagues and the public to give them the opportunity to benefit by making a connection with us.  The ultimate outcome is little more than incidental to the process of having done something that allows us to feel alive and energized, and to share that feeling with those around us.  The important effects of our joyful work are precessional, and cannot be seen by us, now, but we know they are growing, exponentially, in the form of joyful lawyers, more satisfied clients, children spared from the harmful effects of parental fighting.

Collaborative law is sweeping across the continents, leaving lives changed for the better in its wake, because of people like the board members of CLI-Tx and Elizabeth Ferris.  It may not be happening as quickly as we might want, but we are doing our part to make it part of the consciousness of our citizens, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it makes us rich or famous (although that might be the result).   When we remain unattached to the results achieved from our practice, we will be happy.   This does not mean that we do not want to change the world.  It means that if we want a particular outcome to the point that we try to force our will on others, we are less likely to get what we want.  Golfers call the experience of being very present with each shot – any only that shot, not the overall score – being “in the zone.”  Buddhists call the experience “right effort.” Doris Day said it very succinctly: Que sera, sera; What will be, will be.  Buckminster Fuller explained the phenomenon in terms of “precession.”

So I’m just going to keep joyfully doing the right thing, for me, given the current circumstances as I know them, and the world will surely change.  I know it will – I have seen it happen.

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