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The Art of Law

By Bob Levin, Esq.

Bob Levin, a certified specialist for 30 years, is the author of five books, including “The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture” and “Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester.” “Fraud and the Holy Ghost,” a “war story” about an unforgettable case, appeared in getMedLegal Magazine.

     
My philosophy was low overhead, low volume, leave time for a double espresso.

1. In the early 1990s, midway through a forty-year career, I attended a luncheon honoring a woman retiring after ten years as an applicants' attorney to take a research position. When she spoke about her mentors, I realized that none of them still represented injured workers. When I had mentally ticked off twenty-five attorneys who had stopped representing applicants in the prior decade, I stopped counting.

Her decision resulted, the woman said, “From finding myself suffering the same afflictions as my clients. Back pain. Stomach knots. Headaches.” Others of my twenty-five could no longer suffer clients who threatened them or called them racist or stooges for insurance companies. They could not deal with those calling to complain their checks were late or because they had to sleep in their cars because their checks had stopped entirely. They could not deal with the insurance adjustors who stopped checks and did not return phone calls asking why. They could not deal with a system so under-budgeted and under-staffed that it could amass twenty feet of unfiled mail in one division office (an office, which by the way, following the 1989 earthquake, took longer to restore phone service than it took CalTrans to fix the Bay Bridge) and which had a system of penalties for improperly stopped checks that it was laughed at by those it would discipline.

It was not only the representatives of injured workers, I learned, who were moving on. Seventy percent of all lawyers changed jobs their first three years of employment; nearly forty percent would prefer another profession entirely. Lawyers found their work boring, trivial, and socially unredeeming. They found other attorneys brutish, the legal system frustrating, the public unappreciative, and themselves stressed beyond belief.

This interested me. It interested me too that I continued taking calls from clients, telephoning adjustors, flinging my petitions into that twenty feet of mail. It interested me for the twenty years until I retired. For even during law school, I hoped not to be a lawyer. I wanted to write.

 
It was not only the representatives of injured workers, I learned, who were moving on. Seventy percent of all lawyers changed jobs their first three years of employment; nearly forty percent would prefer another profession entirely.
2. I credit Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp, who was arguably the most important visual artist of the twentieth century, said one becomes an artist because “one doesn't want to go to the office every morning.” This made absolute sense to me. I saw nothing intrinsically more pleasurable in writing than in practicing law. What appealed to me about the former were the accoutrerments of the trade. The hours. The dress. The afternoons at the cafe with Gertrude, Ernest and Scott. The not-going-to-the-office-every-morning. Duchamp, who also said, “I consider working for a living slightly imbecilic from an economic point of view,” may seem an unlikely role model for an attorney, but I found him more appealing than, say, Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump, or, even, Baba Ram Das.

Through such acts as exhibiting an upside-down urinal, signed “R. Mutt” financing several weeks of testing a roulette system at Monte Carlo by issuing a series of bonds bearing his picture (he broke even); re-assembled the major work of his career, after clumsy packing broke it, with all cracks preserved; and ceasing to produce art for forty to hang out and play chess, Duchamp revolutionized the art world. He provided, in the words of one disciple, “authorization to do whatever you want, anything at all, just so long as you really like it, just so long as it makes sense to you.”


I saw nothing intrinsically more pleasurable in writing than in practicing law. What appealed to me about the former were the accoutrerments of the trade. The hours....The not-going-to-the-office-every-morning.

3. “What,” you may ask, “is art doing in a discussion of lawyers? Art is pictures of sunflowers or hunks of marble carved to look like saints. It isn't sitting through depositions or listening to clients scream you are in bed with Allstate.

That just shows you haven't been paying attention. Since Duchamp art has been anything you (as long as you are “an artist”) say it is. Art no longer requires the production of objects. It no longer requires viewing by an audience. Art, in fact, may no longer even require ART, which Duchamp pointed out, derives from the Sanskrit for “making” and since all man produces he “makes,” there is no reason to restrict that term to “things on canvas, with a frame...” “My art,” Duchamp said, “would be that of living each second, each breath as a work which is inscribed no where, which is neither visual nor cerebral. It's a sort of constant euphoria.”

For there to be art, a creator need only treat some aspect of life as if it was. Think about it; shape it; allow it to raise questions, extend perceptions, and foster new emotions. Such art treats each moment as significant. It helps one flourish in an environment that otherwise would pound him numb.


My art,” Duchamp said, “would be that of living each second, each breath as a work which is inscribed no where, which is neither visual nor cerebral. It's a sort of constant euphoria.”
 

4. An attorney who works fifty hours per week, which most private practitioners do, and earns $110,000 annually, which is the median figure for all attorneys, makes $40 per hour. A $5000 one week vacation on Maui costs that lawyer over 125 hours. which means he worked three weeks to take off one. If the goal is the not-worked week, this seems...inefficient?

It is hard not to conclude such miscalculations account for some lawyers' discontent. They work too many hours. They are too harried to derive satisfaction from this work. But they then respond by working more hours to earn more money as if all they must do is spend these earnings properly and satisfaction will follow them home from the mall, wagging its tale.

I suggest practicing law as art would serve them better. “But,” you will say, “those with crasser drives will crush me.” Perhaps. But the motivations of the successful vary. Some serve Mammon, others Jesus. With this range, I see room for explorations.


Some serve Mammon, others Jesus. With this range, I see room for explorations.
 

5. “I don't think of myself as making art,” Robert Rauschenberg said. “I do what I do... because painting is the best way I've found to get along with myself.” Robert Irwin approached his art by asking himself what was z“...interesting or entertaining, or at least fun or at least fulfilling.”

I do not suggest that my espressos made me a better lawyer than those otherwise fueled. I lost sleep worrying about decisions to make and cases because of what those decisions were. Clients damned me, fired me; one sued. But usually I looked forward to what each day would bring.

Practicing law as art meant I did the best I could but success did not depend on an award or the size of a fee. Each task could resonate like a Hemingway sentence or dazzle like a Coltrane solo. Everywhere were opportunities to ponder life's weirdness and wonder, imbecilities and joys.

One meets a rich range of people practicing law. One is challenged to think. One can feel one aids others.

One does not have to go to the office every morning.


I do not suggest that my espressos made me a better lawyer than those otherwise fueled....But usually I looked forward to what each day would bring.
 
Bob Levin, Esq.

Bob lives in Berkeley where he writes and enjoys espresso. While he no longer is in active practice, he continues to share his knowledge with his colleagues.

 

 
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