Collaboration: Idealism or Pragmatism?

October 19, 2009

I was fortunate to a attend a breakfast meeting last week with John Siegenthaler, the former editor of the Nashville Tennessean and founding editor of the USA Today newspaper. His topic was leadership lessons which arise out of failure.

John is noted for his courageous work in the tumultuous civil rights culture of the 60’s in the South. Among many other notable accomplishments, John was an assistant to Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General in the John (Jack) F. Kennedy presidential administration. Of these two famous brothers, John Seigenthaler said Jack Kennedy was the idealist and Bobbie the pragmatist. Jack’s visionary ideals of an improved society could be accomplished only by the hard nosed use of strategic legal tools wielded effectively by Bobby.

In support of the Freedom Riders’ efforts to desegregate lunch counters through out the South, Bobby dispatched Seigenthaler to Alabama to extract the freedom riders from the jails and hospitals of Montgomery following a brutal attack by a mob who burned their bus and savagely beat the civil rights activists. John was severely injured when he attempted to rescue one of the freedom riders.

Although heroism was attributed to John for his actions in that heated climate, he indicated that he felt more a failure than courageous. He blamed himself for his inability to bring reason to mob mentality, to convince Alabama governor Patterson to protect the freedom riders and change the culture of violence. His sense of failure in this moment shaped his character and work to follow.

John spoke further of his concern about the state of journalism today in which the media appears to take partisan positions and fails to engender transformative dialogue about matters of consequence. In his view, partisanship, or positional posturing serves as a sign of declining civility and the ineffectual nature of the fifth estate. He recalled wistfully the role of journalism in prior conflicted eras, like the civil rights environment of the 60’s. In his view, principled journalism fosters respectful inquiry, factual development and facilitates the exploration of creative responses. In contrast, blind partisanship merely escalates the conflict without providing avenues of solution. It takes both idealism and pragmatism to engender the collaborative environment out of which creative solutions can be developed and implemented.

A few weeks ago, Randy Lowry and I were asked to facilitate a retreat of a state legislative coalition in advance of the state’s legislative session. I had my doubts that we could break through the partisan mindset of elected state officials. in contrast, what we both discovered was that these officials were as hungry for training and experience in collaborative outcomes as doctors, nurses, lawyers and accountants. At the end of the retreat, they were asking for more training and requested greater involvement by facilitative leaders in legislative development and skill building.

Our time with the legislators and the recognized power of collaboration and consensus building reminds us that these practical skills are the creative place where idealism and pragmatism meet. Partisan positioning severely limits the ability of people to create new solutions, devise innovative outcomes and develop mutually beneficial results.

We are infinitely more capable than people who merely reduce problem solving to declaring the loudest voice the winner and relegating great ideas to the waste bin of trivialized losers.

Let’s be enthusiastically idealistic pragmatists and pursue the power of collaboration.

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Lawyer Day 2009

October 6, 2009

This is the day lawyers get to celebrate their profession and the many contributions they have made to our nation and our communities. We do not have to look very far to realize how many lawyers are in significant positions of influence in government, business, agencies and community development initiatives.

As one of those lawyers, I find myself both proud and occasionally shamed by some of our profession’s accomplishments. Without lawyers, our federal and state constitutions would not have the staying power and vitality to live flexibly and protect individual and collective rights for over 200 years. Corporations are led by lawyers. There are more lawyers in Congress and government than any other profession. Most US presidents have been lawyers. In fact, with only 5% of the world’s population, the US has at least 70% of the world’s lawyers.

On the other hand, the profession I entered over 30 years ago is a far different field than I first knew it to be. My first business card stated that I was a “Counselor at law”. Today, it says I am an “attorney”. What’s the difference? The legal business and the prevailing model of profitability and economic success is the reality practicing lawyers must rely on to “pay the bills” and put the kids through school.

As a result, the business of law and the culture of adversarial representation has transformed the practice of law in the eyes of many into a business that profits at the expense of those it purports to serve. Some complain the legal practice model of the “billable hour” is an unjustified and potentially unethical incentive for waste and inefficiency contrary to the client’s best interest. Some critics believe that conflict is improperly prolonged by a financial reward which is provided to the one who can prolong the fight the longest.

Law firm managers are finding the current economic climate inhospitable to the status quo and numerous experiments are being engineered to promote both the profession of law and the business of law with the client’s interest as the highest priority. “Alternative billing” and “fixed fees” are buzzwords that signal a possible tsunami in the legal services model.

However these innovative initiatives turn out, one fact remains: lawyers are critical to our society and great lawyers are recognized as problem solvers for their clients. That means that collaborative law, mediation, settlement counsel, negotiation and expedited litigation will all become valuable tools with which lawyers will become increasingly proficient in order to reclaim the public trust in the profession. Trusted advisers are those whose professional skills meet the client’s needs and for which the client finds value sufficient to gladly pay the bill.

The days of lawyers as trusted adviser will return, and soon. As lawyers learn the strategic skills of conflict management, their clients will both respect and trust them.

In the meantime, go hug a lawyer. We need love too.