Author Archives: Midlaw

I am the past Managing Partner at Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, a law firm with 95 attorneys in offices in Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina. I also have roles at Guilford College, Westtown School, the NC IOLTA Plan, the Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation, The Greensboro Public Library Foundation and the NC Bar Association and Legal Aid of NC. For many years a resident of Greensboro, I am a native of Tarboro and Edgecombe County. I have a taste for and interest in hummus, which is extensively exercised in this blog.

Cahiers de hoummous: chickpea hummus?

MidLaw has warned — no, thundered! — that no good can come of using the term “hummus” to denominate dips made of foreign substances.  “Pumpkin hummus,” “beet hummus,” “sweet potato hummus.” Bah!

Well, the chicks have come home to roost.

MidLaw was at a fancy event in a hotel the other night. Fancy hors-d’oeuvres were served. Each separate offering was accompanied by a small card naming the dish. And there at the end, on the far side of the artichoke dip, was a bowl of what was labeled “chickpea hummus.”

Chickpea hummus?

If you do not label it “hummus b’tahini,” that’s OK. But this label said “chickpea hummus”. Might as well have said “chickpea chickpeas,” or “hummus hummus”.

Would you say “eggplant aubergines,” or “green bean haricots verts”? Bean wrap burrito.

One must hold the line — in large things and small.

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An odd bit of verse with an odd provenance about notable NC lawyers in the 19th Century

An odd little book found recently in a used bookstore (The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville), recites the following odd verse, which is attributed to Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers (see below). It features three leading lawyers of 19th Century North Carolina: Bartholomew F. Moore, Judge Robert Strange, Jr., and William A. Wright. All three are figures worth knowing about (see below), but this piece of doggerel about them is its own reward:

Messieurs Moore, Strange and Wright

Met to drink and good cheer to exchange

Said Moore, ‘of us three

The whole town will agree

There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Said Strange, rather sore,

‘I’m sure there’s one Moore –

A terrible knave and a bite,

Who cheated his mother,

His sister and brother.’

‘Oh, yes,” replied Moore, ‘that’s Wright.’

The book from which this comes is Law Tales for Laymen, written by Joseph Lacy Seawell and published in 1925. Seawell was the Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Seawell attributes the verse to “John L. Bridgers”. (He says Bridgers “tells” it, not that he “wrote” it.) There were two John L. Bridgers (John and John Jr.).  Both were prominent lawyers, farmers, and businessmen from Tarboro. The elder Bridgers died in 1884. He had commanded the Edgecombe Guards and Fort Macon in the Civil War. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., was a local judge and an author of The History of Edgecombe County. He died in 1932. Jr. seems the more likely source of the verse.

Bartholomew Moore was one of that extraordinary line of lawyers who emerged along the Edgecombe-Nash County line. He was among the most distinguished North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century. Famously, he represented Will in State v. Will, a landmark judicial opinion which arose from Edgecombe County and was a major step forward in establishing the legal rights of enslaved people. Moore strenuously opposed the Civil War and refused to appear in Confederate courts, which required an oath of allegiance. Even so, he remained a prominent and highly respected member of the North Carolina Bar throughout the War and afterward.

Robert Strange, Jr., from Fayetteville, was a lawyer, a superior court judge and a United States senator. He wrote Eoneguski, or the Cherokee Chief, which is said to be the first novel set in North Carolina.

About William A. Wright, a superficial Internet search finds no references, which is Strange, but which permits MidLaw to say nothing Moore, and that’s alWright.

 

Brown shoes?

In the marketplace just now, brown shoes are an unmistakable fashion among young males.

Frank Zappa, where are you?

Brown shoes don’t make it
Brown shoes don’t make it
Quit school, why fake it?
Brown shoes don’t make it

Old Lawyers – Not Fade Away

For reasons we can discuss at another time, I’ve been reading materials about retirement lately.

Most recently, I’ve read: Aging Well, by George Vaillant, which somebody told me is the best book about its subject (it presents Vaillant’s conclusions arising out of the Harvard Study of Adult Development); and Managing Oneself, by Peter Drucker, which is Drucker’s celebrated article on knowledge workers, a big chunk of which is titled “The Second Half of Your Life”; and a recent article that appeared in the NY Times. The Times article is “Asked About Retiring, They Have a Simple Answer: Why?

Each piece advises: stay engaged, keep up connections to others, sustain a sense of purpose, exercise, and don’t drink too much. These are the keys to aging well.

And each of those pieces points to selected lawyers as their best examples of persons who are aging well.

One is amused.

Lawyers themselves at this moment are identifying aging and the retirement (or non-retirement) of the Baby Boom Generation as great challenges facing the legal profession.  Lawyers who stay too long are seen as a growing problem. Bar institutions are beginning to examine age-related infirmities, to offer programs on aging, and to form support agencies to counsel with lawyers about retiring, transitioning their practices, and managing disabilities. In law firms, many are more direct: they want advice about how to get older lawyers out of the way. And consultants are queuing up to meet the demand.

So, what are lawyers: models or problems?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The lawyers cited by the Times and in Aging Well are really judges. The Times poster-senior-citizen is Judge Jack Weinstein. Judge Weinstein is 96 years old. “I’ve never thought of retiring,” he says. He is a senior Federal District Judge for the Eastern District of New York. After he exercises, he goes to work every day at 7 AM. He hears motions in the morning and tries cases in the afternoon.

No doubt about it, the picture of going full bore to 96 is a great image.

But the guy is a Federal District Court Judge. He has a lifetime appointment. It’s guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s bound to affect how you retire. And remember, judging is unique. It’s one of the few jobs that is commonly done by sitting in an upholstered chair, often with your eyes closed, listening to other people talk. And it’s a job best performed by experienced, deliberate practitioners who are adept at recognizing patterns of behavior and applying time-tested responses to them. It’s the perfect old-guy job.

And remember too, this guy is Judge Jack Weinstein. For Judge Weinstein, if he’s limited himself to hearing motions and trying cases, then he has retired. Years ago, he was Chief Judge, he was handling a huge load of the most complex litigation in the country, and he was writing one book and article after another – including a major, multi-volume treatise on civil procedure. If what he’s doing now is limited to motions and trials, then, for him, that’s cutting way back.

Maybe the best lesson here is that Judge Weinstein is still engaged, still connected with other people, and still grounded in a sense of purpose. And he exercises every morning at 5:30 AM.

Well, the rest of us are not Weinsteins and we’re not judges.

Our energy, stamina and mental fluidity begin their decline in our 20’s. In our 60’s, susceptibilities to disability, cognitive impairment and mortality become statistically significant. But the fund of our experience and relationships, our ability to recognize patterns, and the wisdom of our judgments continue to grow – up to a point. Troublesomely, that point is different for every person.

Traditionally, lawyers have had many choices and good options for navigating these waters. Practicing law was never a job. It was a career. And lawyer’s careers have had an arc that corresponds in large measure with commonly recognized stages of adult development.

In broad terms those stages can be characterized as (i) developing mastery of the profession, (ii) connecting developed skills with purposeful work, (iii) making a contribution (Vaillant: “generativity”), (iv) playing a role in conserving cultural and institutional values (Vaillant: “keeping meaning”), and ultimately (v) growing into an integrated and meaningful life (Vaillant: “integrity”).

Peter Drucker characterized the careers of knowledge workers in parallel ways. He observed that “knowledge workers are not ‘finished’ after 40 years on the job, they are merely bored.” He said,

At 45, most executives have reached the peak of their business careers, and they know it. After 20 years of doing very much the same kind of work, they are very good at their jobs. But they are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job. And yet they are still likely to face another 20 if not 25 years of work.

Drucker envisioned these accomplished, but bored executives as either developing a second career, or parallel career or becoming “social entrepreneurs.” And, like Vaillant and the Times, Drucker pointed to lawyers as examples of professionals who do this well.

For Drucker and Vaillant and the Times to lift up lawyers was no mere coincidence. Unlike business executives, lawyers in the 20th Century were not, like organization men or women, trapped in “jobs.” Their productivity was not (at least, not entirely) measured in terms of narrow productivity metrics. And, as lawyers’ careers developed, they moved naturally through those development stages, from mastery to purpose to generativity. Many lawyers became leading conservers of cultural and professional values. For many, their continuous transition through those different roles was baked into careers at a single firm. Over their careers, they evolved in place, and there was room to do that. Ultimately, rather than retire, lawyers could gradually “cut back.”

In effect, lawyers could retire in place. They continued to inhabit their identities as lawyers but reduced the levels of their engagement apace with their personal circumstances.

That alternative was not open to people with jobs. People with jobs can’t cut back. Jobs are cogs in organizations. They are measured by productivity. More is better and less is rarely a choice. The job extends beyond an individual’s career and the organizations must provide for the continuation of the job. So, after holders of jobs reach a certain point, they must go so the job can stay. Their organizations think of productivity and succession and transition.

Until the advent of large firms and practice groups and specialization, practicing law was not fraught with these concerns. Lawyers shaped their work to their lives.

Today though, lawyers are much more likely to have jobs. Lawyers in private practice are likely to be members of firms. And most firms are intent on surviving as organizations beyond the careers of their current members. So the context in which today’s lawyers are aging is changing.

For those lawyers who have jobs, they must plan for retirement like other knowledge workers who have jobs.

Lawyers in firms must accommodate their firms’ larger concerns. As lawyers age, their firms will be focussed on client demands, which are more likely to run to responsiveness and efficiency (even youth) than to deliberation and professionalism.

Internally in firms, the interests of senior members must be balanced against the expectations of younger ones. Firms must manage the advancement and retention of younger lawyers. They must provide training, experience, client development, and compensation for younger members. They must grapple with a changing profession.

All this means that choices are narrowing for older lawyers. Increasingly, traditional career patterns no longer suit. Latitude to align law practice with personal circumstances is shrinking.

But, like all Americans, lawyers today are remaining active and living longer than in the past. And lawyers are no more interested in retirement now than before.

So new models are needed, new ways of cutting back. The best of lawyers in the best of firms are not yet entirely job holders.

Westtown BBall on ESPNU Monday

Westtown School v. IMG Academy, January 15 @ 5PM on ESPNU. Have hummus and pita at the ready (celery or carrot sticks optional). Which Westtown player going to Duke next year?

 

Edgecombe-connected guy recognized by BBC for greatest novel of 21st Century (well, 8th on the list)

Ben Fountain is not actually from Edgecombe County but his people are. Some of them back to the 18th Century.

He’s a North Carolina native and is also said to be possibly “the most nationally recognized and awarded Texas author since Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.” His novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk clocks in at eighth in the BBC’s reckoning of the greatest novels of the 21st Century. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker had pronounced him a genius before he ever wrote that book.

MidLaw is still on the theme that Edgecombe is no ordinary county.

Cahiers de Hoummous: Yuletide hummus, a MidLaw tradition

In the spirit of the season, garnish your hummus with a sprig of holly. The dark green leaf, the bright red berry: they rest so well on a rich bed of beige. (Recipe for the beige: The MidLaw Hummus Way.)

But do not eat that holly. Remember: Holly is toxic and can cause death to small animals and little children.

Merry Christmas to all! And a Happy New Year!

A James Brown Christmas miracle — Merry Christmas Baby

I do not understand this Internet, but I say it is a Christmas Miracle when you can push a button on your computer and have James Brown’s Funky Christmas come right up, no charge.

(You are looking for track number 4, but don’t miss number 5 — well, all of them.)

As nearly as I can tell, thanks for this are due to Josh Jones, a writer, and musician based in Durham, NC, and to Open Culture, the best free cultural and educational media on the web. And, of course, to JAMES BROWN.

Let us rejoice and be glad.

Have a Soulful Christmas (Track 6).

Cahiers de Hoummous: The BBC leaps into the fray

Apparently, a recent Cahiers de Hoummous post here provoked the BBC. Last week, it published another one of those who-invented-hummus? articles. (For one of the best in the genre, see Church of the Chickpea.)

Demonstrating that the author had read that recent MidLaw cahier, the BBC article opened up with the fundamental axiom: “The recipe for hummus b’tahini (as the dish is named: ‘hummus’ simply means ‘chickpeas’), consists of chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon.” (No mention here of the possibility of pumpkins or beets.)

For 9 pages, it reviews the perennial hummus questions: smooth or lumpy? oil in it or on it? what condiments and accompaniments? Chickpeas, the BBC agrees, are some serious beans. They go back 10,000 years, it says. They are indubitably without peers among legumes. (With apologies to red kidney beans, chickpeas’ only real rivals among legumes are Edgecombe County peanuts. (Yes, Virginia, those nuts are legumes).) And, there is a not-to-be-missed discussion, mid-article, of the traditional practice of serving hummus in red clay bowls with raised edges. The hummus is whisked against the edges and mounded in a way that promotes good pita-dipping. The texture of the hummus (as between too liquid and too thick) is gauged by how well it mounds around the edge.

Inevitably, one supposes, the BBC asks “Who invented hummus?” But, was it really necessary? MidLaw put this old quarrel to rights long ago. Hummus originated in Greensboro at an indeterminant date, sometime in the last 10,000 years.

Along the way, this newest article also sets more rabbits running. Is hummus a Greek thing? (MidLaw has addressed this.) Did hummus actually originate in India or Nepal? (Admittedly, a new one.)

In the end, they found a guy in Haifa who shrugged (a sure sign of authority) and said:

It doesn’t matter where it’s from. What matters is the way it’s been co-opted and sold commercially in grocery stores in plastic containers. “That’s not hummus!” he said, tearing a piece of pita. “There should be a sign on that humus the way there is on “kosher shrimp.” It should be labeled “fake hummus”. There should be an international law.

The guy is a MidLawfarian.

Roll your own!

[A tip of the MidLaw cap to C.L. Dibble for the BBC referral.]
[Special Note: Be on the lookout for a reprise of MidLaw’s celebrated “Yuletide Hummus” cahier. It’s coming any day now in response to overwhelming demand!]

What lawyers are for: what Montaigne said: a respite from artificial intelligence, alternative providers, and accountants

mont4

Michel de Montaigne

Now is a time when great chunks of law practice are breaking away. Law work is going to alternative providers and artificial intelligences and accountants. Lawyers are challenged to get clear about what their core function is. What, if anything, do lawyers do better than machines and bureaux and accountancies?

“Advocacy” is an answer that comes back soonest and most frequently. “Managing uncertainty” is another. Often these come down to acting in the moment: functioning on your feet in courtrooms, boardrooms, and conference rooms. In those contexts, the unexpected can break out. When that happens, who are you going to call?

Artificial intelligence, quick as it is, can’t yet come into a room and take up the lists. Alternative service providers want stacks of documents and time to sift through them. Accountants want to classify and quantify. They want time and premeditation.

For now anyway, it’s still left to the lawyers to manage uncertainty — controversy — in the moment. Particularly lawyers in mid-size firms are called for that. They are the ones that get the most experience with it.

Michel de Montaigne, himself a lawyer in the middle market, was the brain scientist of the 16th Century. He commented on the lawyer’s brain and on acting in the moment — and he distinguished between what he called “the mind”, on one hand, and “judgment”, on the other. His comments (in his essay Of Quick or Slow Speech) call to mind the work of his fellow (albeit modern-day) brain scientist Daniel Kahneman and Kahneman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

In the gift of wit or eloquence, Montaigne said

some have facility and promptness, and, as they say, can get it out so easily that at every turn they are ready; whereas others, slower, never speak except with elaboration and premeditation.

[I]f I had to give advice regarding these two diverse abilities …, which seems in our time to be the profession principally of preachers and lawyers, the slow man would do better as a preacher, it seems to me, and the other better as a lawyer. For the former’s calling gives him all the leisure he pleases to prepare himself, and then his course is run in a straight continuous line, without interruption; whereas the opportunities of the lawyer press him at every moment to enter the lists, and the unseen replies of his adversary force him off his course, so that he must immediately take up a new line.

It seems to be more peculiar to the mind to be prompt and sudden in its operation, and more peculiar to the judgment to be slow and deliberate. But a man who remains completely mute unless he has leisure to prepare, and also one to whom leisure gives no advantage for speaking better, are both abnormal cases. They tell of Severus Cassius that he spoke better without having thought about what he was going to ay; that he owed more to fortune than to diligence; that it was an advantage to him to be interrupted in speaking, and that his adversaries were afraid to goad him, for fear that anger would redouble his eloquence.

These two temperaments, thinking fast and slow, have their different characteristics, each its limitations. Reflecting on himself, Montaigne observes:

I know by experience this sort of nature that cannot bear vehement and laborious premeditation. If it doesn’t go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going. We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp, because of a certain harshness and roughness that labor imprints on productions in which it has a large part. But besides this, the anxiety to do well, and the tension of straining too intently on one’s work, put the soul on the rack, break it, and make it impotent; …

It is no less peculiar to the kind of temperament I am speaking of that it wants to be stimulated: not shaken and stung by such strong passions as Cassius’ anger (for that emotion would be too violent); not shocked; but roused and warmed up by external present, and accidental stimuli. If it goes along all by itself, it does nothing but drag and languish. Agitation is its very life and grace.

I have little control over myself and my moods. Chance has more power here than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it myself. This its speech is better than its writings, if there can be choice where there is no value.

This also happens to me: that I do not find myself in the place where I look; and I find myself more by chance encounter than by searching my judgment.

There is insight here for lawyers who advocate and counsel and negotiate – and also some respite from the onslaught of artificial lawyers, alternative lawyers, and accountants.

Be the one who can bring surprise and uncertainty, but also be prepared to welcome uncertainty when it comes upon you. Lawyers are the ones who are best in the moment, but they must bring judgment in those moments. Maybe artificial intelligence will be able to do that one day; I can’t see accountants getting there.

Be the one who goes along “gaily and freely.” Be the guy who brings the hammer to a computer fight.