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Taking Professionalism to New Heights–Mountaineering Lessons for the Practice of Law: Part 1

by Alexa Drago on March 15, 2016

By Guest Blogger: Steve Sieberson

My legal career and my life as a recreational mountaineer started in the summer of 1975, when I moved from Iowa to Seattle just a few days after graduating from law school. Since then I have devoted far more time and energy to law than to climbing, but the peaks and glaciers have always been calling my name.

It occurred to me recently that I have not been suffering from schizophrenia. There are striking similarities between mountaineering and the practice of law. Both are highly demanding and require training, focus, and commitment. Neither should be undertaken lightly. Both are risky, but they offer big rewards.

There are many lawyer-climbers in the Pacific Northwest, and we have discovered that mountaineering offers lessons that also apply to our legal careers – to our professionalism, success, and well-being. I would like to share a few of these lessons.

  1. Plan for Your Success
  • Plan your route, but be flexible. You don’t just look out, see a lofty mountain, and set out to conquer it, although once I met a trio who had done just that. High on the slopes of Mount Adams, I noticed a group who were climbing in street clothes and tennis shoes. They had no knapsacks, ice axes, or even jackets. When I went over to ask how they were doing, one of them gestured expansively and said, “Man, this is nothing like L.A.” Out on a road trip, they had seen Adams from a distance, driven to its base, and decided to give it a go. Luckily for them, the weather was stable and they were on a non-glaciated route.

If we are prudent climbers, we will study maps and route descriptions, call the Forest Service for current conditions, and check the weather forecast. We will consider how to alter our course in case conditions change. Likewise, as a lawyer you won’t last long unless you carefully organize your caseload. But even after completing your meticulous planning, you should be prepared to change directions as circumstances evolve.

train

  • Train to a higher level of skill than you think you need. Every climber knows that a Class 3 route will quickly turn into Class 4 or 5 if it starts raining. A slope that is easy in daylight can be treacherous in the dark. If someone suffers an injury, the situation becomes exponentially more complicated. There is a reason for learning rescue techniques and wilderness first aid. If we haven’t trained for the contingency, we may be out of luck.

Law practice demands constant learning and the ability to deal with legal issues that you hope will not arise in your case. It’s great to have experts down the hall, but you need to know enough to realize when you should call them. If you think about all of the complexities swirling in our legal system, you just might be thankful for bar sections, Northwest Lawyer, and mandatory continuing legal education.

  • Be bold in the conception, conservative in the execution. On January 14, 2015, when Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell completed their nineteen-day siege on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, it was the fulfillment of a daring dream – the world’s hardest multi-pitch route. And yet, they were far from reckless. They had planned and trained for this climb for five years. They had rehearsed every move, pre-determined every bivouac, and separately climbed each section over and over.

To a non-climber, a mountaineer may appear as a crazed thrill-seeker, but the fact is that most climbers are inherently conservative. We enter a vertical world filled with hazards, but we try to be as safe as possible at all times. In the same sense, lawyers should be both daring and cautious. You must be creative in navigating the legal minefield, but your ingenuity must be tempered by sobriety. From the first day of law school you are taught to see many sides to an issue, and that is why you should always challenge your own assumptions by asking, “But what if . . . ?”

  1. Equip Yourself for the Task Ahead

carry

  • Don’t carry too much. One of the recurring themes in Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling book Wild is her constant struggle with an overloaded backpack as she hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail. Seasoned climbers have learned that it is indeed possible to have too much gear, and that going light can enhance agility and conserve energy.

If you want to succeed as a lawyer, you should know that you can call too many witnesses, raise too many issues on appeal, and have too many words in a letter or document.

  • Keep it neat. In rock climbing it is critical to keep your equipment rack precisely organized. When you are hanging by one hand, you want to know exactly where that chock or stopper is attached to the sling, so you can efficiently retrieve it, insert it into a crack, and clip in. Likewise, you need to know where the first aid kit is stashed in your pack, and exactly how it is organized. When confronted with blood, you don’t want to be fumbling around looking for a compress.

In my opinion there is no greater sin – nor one committed with more frequency – than a messy work space. Unfortunately, the modern law firm response to clutter is to have all conference rooms segregated from the lawyer offices, so clients will never see how disorganized their expensive attorney is.

  • Embrace technology, but don’t be too dependent on it. I grew up with compass, altimeter, and maps, and I’ll admit to being slow in buying into GPS devices. They are impressive, and they can be potentially life-saving. Likewise, cell phones can be invaluable in an emergency. But what happens if there is no signal or the battery dies? If you have hiked along, looking down and marking waypoints on your screen, have you noticed the actual physical landscape? Your brain doesn’t die after ten hours of use.

As a lawyer, can you have a meeting with a client at which you make eye contact instead of just typing notes onto a laptop or tablet? And at that closing or during that trial, doesn’t it make sense to carry knowledge in your head rather than only in a device? Modern technology offers so much information-retrieval capacity, that practicing law the old fashioned way seems, well, old fashioned. But surely there must still be a role for thinking on your feet.

  1. Form a Team

climb

  • Find good partners and communicate with them. Caldwell and Jorgeson formed what proved to be a perfect team, and they knew how critical it was to stay in constant contact. After nineteen days on the Dawn Wall, they were hoarse from shouting at each other to be heard around outcroppings and over the noise of the wind.

I have always been fortunate to have colleagues, including support staff and service providers, who are smart and dedicated. My clients (and now my students) have truly benefitted from the folks I work with. Nevertheless, just sharing office quarters with talented people is of little good if you and your colleagues do not communicate effectively. It always starts with you and your willingness to listen.

  • Ask others to check your equipment. It is good mountaineering practice to check out each other’s tie-in, rappel rig, or belay set-up, especially when you have been climbing for many hours and are getting tired. Good teammates also consult on route-finding, anchor placement, and other ongoing decisions. If you can’t accept the fact that two heads are better than one, you might as well be flying solo, and then, when you peel off the cliff with no belay, you will be.

Why work with other people in a law office or legal department if you won’t take the time to consult with them? Again, throughout my career I have gained so much from the people I work with – from their encouragement, but also from their questions and skepticism. One of the best sources of advice has been my assistants. I am not too proud to ask, “Does this make sense to you?”

  • Swing leads to share the effort. On an extended rock climb the usual practice is for one person to lead the first pitch, belayed from below. Then she sets a new belay, brings up the second, and the second plays through and leads the next pitch. They continue to alternate, “swinging leads.” This is not only efficient, but also a wonderful way to share the responsibilities between partners.

In law practice, being part of a team means that others can shoulder part of the load. Some lawyers are reluctant to divide up their work, on the theory that “by the time I explain what I need, I can do it myself.” This is sadly short-sighted. Sharing the effort is a necessary part of training new team members, and it creates a stronger team.

NEXT ISSUE—Part 2: (4) Manage the Risks, (5) Rise to the Challenge, and (6) Take Joy in What You Do

 

steveAbout the author: Steve Sieberson, a WSBA member since 1975, practiced law in Seattle for 25 years before becoming Professor of Law at Creighton University in Omaha. A longtime climber, he is the author of an acclaimed and highly entertaining book, The Naked Mountaineer – Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Steve’s webpage is www.stevesieberson.com, and he can be reached at stevesieberson@gmail.com

This article was originally published in NW Lawyer, vol. 69 no. 6, September 2015—republished with permission.

Drawings © 1982. Illustrations by Bob Cram, reproduced from Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 4th edition, published by Mountaineers Books, Seattle. The book is known as “the bible of mountaineering instruction” and is currently in its eighth edition.

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