Lawyer as Writer

Introspective and Journal Writing

"Personal writing is as old as human history, rooted, as it is, in the deeply human need to tell one's story." [G. Lynn Nelson, Learning From Within: Ira Progoff and the Power of Personal Writing, Media and Methods, 15 Media & Methods 48 (1978)]

"In legal writing, it is possible to steer wide of anything that matters to you as a person, but the attraction for such analytical writing passes quickly. I need to face my feelings; that need becomes a craving. Until the craving is satisfied by writing—really writing—my dreams become wild, my attention to detail lags, and my restlesness insures my unhappiness." [From a Law Student's Journal]

There lies ahead a long arduous journey in understanding ourselves.

When we reflect on our own lives, we run the gamut from having nothing to say to the realization that we don't know how to say what we do know about our own lives. Ttoo little or too much in the stories we want to tell, some of us are burdened with impoverished imaginations, an impoverishment that makes for a poor story if not a poor life. Impoverished as our imaginations may be, we carry around with us images that empower us and images that limit us. These images appear in our stories and are integral to the way we live our lives.

Introspective writers don't merely think, or even think and write; they think and write, in conversation with themselves, learning from what they write, experience, and dream, and then write what they have learned. C.G. Jung's analyses of his own dreams are remarkable instances of this, as are Sigmund Freud's little detective stories on why he left his umbrella at home, or how he came to use the wrong word in a conversation. To wake up with a feeling of sadness from a dream; to find that you are depressed for no reason; to realize that you are sexually attracted to one client and always angry with another, or feel powerless and out of control with still another, are the experiences of which psychology and literature and introspection are made.

There is a strong, and I believe, pervasive need, of clients and lawyers to tell their stories, as necessary for many of us as it is to live with and in the stories we tell. We tell a story in our work, in the briefs we write, the cases we try in the courtroom, and in conversations with clients, in the counseling we do when we practice the art of talking and listening.

This is how one student expressed that need: "In legal writing it is possible to steer wide of anything that matters to you as a person, but the attraction for such analytical writing passes quickly. I need to face my feelings; that need becomes a craving. Until the craving is satisfied by writing—really writing—my dreams become wild, my attention to detail lags, and my restlessness insures my unhappiness." And so we ask our students to write journals, essays, and creative non-fiction, anything that will capture the meaning of the world we experience. We need this kind of writing, the kind of writing we find in journals, essays, creative non-fiction, stories and and novels, to give expression to our lives. And when our lives are too full, crowded, too busy to do this kind writing for ourselves we turn to the writing of others, to those who have found the time, who have responded to the need to say something imaginative about life, about the world in which they live.

There are many reasons to keep a journal, and many ways in which to do it. I have worked with journals over the years, writing my own, and asking students to keep journals as a way to learn about themselves, about how becoming a professional matters in their lives.

Doing a journal is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Knowing that introspective and personal writing can be of value, that we can learn about ourselves, and begin to make our experience as learner and teacher a part of our education as lawyers, is apparently not enough to prompt most people to keep a journal. The fact that so few lawyers and others in public life and leadership positions keep journals and engage in any kind of introspection suggest that it is not only the difficulty of keeping a journal but an attitude that we hold toward introspection. Abraham Zalezkik and Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, in their book on corporate leaders, Power and the Corporate Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975) argue that, "Leaders, who orient themselves to power and action, are usually indifferent to the notions of psychic truth; instead, they care about practicality and feasibility." [260]. They suggest that truth, what we might call psychological truth, "can be sought only on the edges of depression, the potential for helplessness that must be acknowledged in the process of arriving at the understanding of goals and the manner of their pursuit. Depression is too painful for most people to endure, so they involve themselves in activity and, occasionally, in a preparanoid search for antagonists, danger, and obstacles that reality seems to be erecting for them to overcome. The consequence is insensitivity and lack of awareness, which diminish the capacity to perceive and communicate."

Journal writing and introspection are discouraged in a world dominated by the routines of everyday life. And it is the routines of everyday life, the meetings with clients and other lawyers, the court appearances, the papers to be drawn up and filed, the brief to be written, that keep us busy. Who has time to think, or keep a journal that seems to serve no necessary, immediate, purpose? Busy people who long ago quit reading textbooks have no time for making a textbook of their own lives. The busy lawyer justifies her life by telling herself, "I don't have time to do anything else." And it is exactly this experience, of being rushed, of not having time, that becomes an integral part of our relationship with clients, that impoverishes our counseling, that gives our lives the feel and texture that they have. This experience of lawyering and everyday life and the conflict it creates and the frustration and burn-out it ultimately produces, can itself be made the subject of our journals, an entryway or opening into a deeper understanding of who we are and what we have become as lawyers, how we have found a place for ourselves in the world, or continue to search for that place.

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Journals are paradoxical, on the one hand unique to the writer, and, on the other hand, an expression of hopes and dreams, failures and fears that each of us experience in our daily life.

When I asked my students to write journals, to learn about themselves, I did so because the felt experience in one's life as a student is a significant feature in the way we go about identifying ourselves as a lawyer--as a professional--and not merely a container for the substantive knowledge that is being promoted in law school.

When students write about doing journals, they often speak of journals as a kind of therapy. This is the way one student explained it:

I write to survive. Whenever I feel a lot of pain, I write to some unknown individual, just spewing out my rage and pain. It has a cathartic effect. Sometimes when my feelings and thinking are at odds with each other, I attempt to make decisions through stream-of-consciousness writing. I make a deliberate attempt to write everything about a feeling or thought. After a week or so, I reread my writing to see how the situation has changed.

Doing a journal is one way to deal with pain, disappointment, confusion, conflict, and failure. These experiences, the ones we hate so much to admit, the ones we dread having, the ones we hope will just go away, are the kinds of experiences that journal writing helps us experience more fully. The journal claims the experience as one that can be admitted, owned up to, explored, even appreciated.

For some students, writing is a way to stay on an even keel; it keeps them on track, moving in the right direction, helps them be more effective and realistic. One student says: "I am depending on the journal to keep my thought processes keen, even in the tide of overwhelming amounts of case material and demand for one lane thought." But the ego that gets into journal writing also has a penchant for ignoring aspects of our lives that don't get expressed by being on track, by the linear movement from goal A to goal B to goal C. There are needs and purposes in professional life that are sacrificed in the making of goals and in achieving them, in doing what our teachers and our clients ask us to do. Goal-oriented achievement poses no small danger, even as it gets us to where we have chosen to go. One student writing on this point recognizes that law school is a great adventure and one that calls for sacrifice: "This journey is probably the greatest adventure I have ever embarked upon. This [journal] is a record of my development, a living account of the adjustments and sacrifices that I have made to accomplish a goal that was set so long ago." One student writes:

I want to see myself in my journal. I have saved my writings for over ten years. By re-reading these writings, I can see many facets of my personality. I can read about how I express anger, love, worry, hopes, dreams, and pain. I can compare how I feel now with how I felt ten years ago. I can evaluate the changes. My collection of writings keeps me aware of what I have been through, and helps me focus on my goals.

Another student writes:

My journal is still full of questions for me to resolve. Hopefully, every time I am in doubt, my journal will be a barometer to show me how far I have veered from my course, or how well I have obtained my objectives.

A journal works as therapy because it gives whatever is troubling us, a chance to speak for itself. The ego crowds out the many voices of our lives that don't fit easily behind the persona, into the demands that our clients make upon us. The therapeutic value of journal writing that students experience comes from getting back into awareness these voices trampled on in the rush of everyday life. One student writes:

Without regard to the purpose of this journal, the process of drafting it over the semester has been a valuable experience in itself. I have thought about things in depth, whereas without the journal, I would merely have let them pass. I have questioned and criticized, whereas without writing the journal, I would have been apathetic. But, most importantly, I have forced myself to take a step back from "all of this" [law school] and try to gain a perspective of it, whereas without writing the journal, I would not even have attempted this. In essence, the journal has been very beneficial to me, even if I have not created a "purposeful" or "good" journal.

Journals and introspective writing help us see what is truly important in our lives and how the apprehension, anxiety, anger, and fear as much as our happiness, contentment, and achievement are inevitable and valuable in our lives.

Journal writing is an outlet, or as one student dramatically puts it: "This journal has give me an outlet to plug all my frustrations and problems and ideas into. It has been my psychiatrist." Another student speaks of the journal as a way of seeing and understanding her own life.

This has been an excellent outlet for me and my frustrations and tensions. I write down my problems, insecurities, feelings and then come back and read what I have written and it gives me a different and clearer perspective of the situation. Sometimes just by the actual "writing" physical tensions are released and frustrations calmed. It has been an excellent way for me to look deeper and find out new things about myself.

To counsel another person, to attend to her problems, the concerns and fears that are related to her problems, it is necessary for the counselor to see and reflect on what is happening in her own life. The work that a lawyer does, the listening and talking we do with clients; the way our encounters and interactions with clients are imagined, conceived, and executed cannot be divorced from the feelings, fears, failures, hopes, and dreams of the person who is the lawyer. Only if the lawyer were able to view herself purely as a technician, only if her professional work were purely routine, would it be possible to study and understand, to learn and perform the lawyer role without it having an effect on who she is as a person. A student writes: "This journal has made me confront myself as a person. If this writing serves no other purpose, that is enough." One effect of learning law, knowing law, and practicing it out in the world is that it makes us one kind of person rather than another, bringing satisfactions, pleasures, and also fatigue, alienation and disenchantment. This subjective dimension of professional life, unexamined in legal education, makes lawyering worthwhile and fulfilling or simply makes work tolerable.

Journal writing is a way to explore, to discover, to see how the goals we make for ourselves in turn bring with them restrictions and limitations.

My law school writing is, for the most part, different than my personal or imaginative writing. I am expected to accurately record and analyze divergent facts. While analysis can be creative, it is nonetheless no real part of myself. As a law student I am only reacting to factual situations or to theories already formulated by others. At most I am creating theories from separate, smaller groups of ideas already formulated. Legal writing strives for succinctness. While necessary for clarity, brevity removes one's spirit from the work. When clarity is the only emphasis, writing has no soul.

Legal writing can, however, be seductive at times. When I am tired or would rather not face up to the world or my feelings, I find it easier to analyze than create.

Another student comments:

Writing for an assignment has always been difficult for me. I've been afraid to sound like myself—for fear that what I'm saying isn't worth listening to. I must sound authoritative and often I find myself using words that I would never use in conversation. I'm still not sure if writing is supposed to sound like me or not. I've concluded that if the assignment involves research on a particular subject, I should never sound like me.

I remember handing in a writing exercise in high school that was returned to me with every "I" and "me" circled in red ink, along with a comment that these words were used far too often in the essay. It had a profound effect on me. I'm still somewhat paranoid about personal pronouns in my writing.

In Law School, all I've written are memos and a brief for the Legal Writing course. It's something you do by writing, but it isn't writing. The memos were the easiest—research and write—"it could be this, it could be that"—no feeling, no emotion permitted. The brief permitted the expression of some emotion through the need to be persuasive. This was "me" talking and it involved somewhat of an investment. I wrote alone in the apartment all weekend. I found it a painful process—almost like labor. It felt as if I had delivered this baby, and now a baby expert was going to look at it and he might tell me it was ugly—or, worse, that it was dead!

And another:

School causes us to write for our teachers, others, instead of for ourselves. We learn that we cannot write, that we are not worthy of writing for ourselves. This process continues in law school.

When I have a writing assignment, I panic. Will it be as good as the professor wants it to be? It's so hard to write for oneself when grades and jobs depend on pleasing the professor. Why are we all so caught up in pleasing others with our writing?

I associate methodical, sterile, "correct" writing with becoming a lawyer. When I write for law school, my writing is not original, it is a conglomeration of other people's thoughts and writings on yet other people's thoughts. Everything I write down has to be footnoted! Law school has made me more confident in terms of writing correctly, but not creatively.

As a woman, I write more about love, pain, coping, and relationships. It is hard to imagine a woman writing a book about fishing.

When I recently began to keep a journal, I sat down with nothing particular in mind and simply began to write. No typographical errors to correct, no misspellings, no delay in putting ideas into words. It felt good.

[This commentary is drawn from Thomas L. Shaffer & James R. Elkins, Legal Interviewing and Counseling (St. Paul: West Group, 4rd ed., 2005) and James R. Elkins, Writing Our Lives: Making Introspective Writing a Part of Legal Education, 29 Willamette L. Rev. 45 (1993)]

Bibliography: Writing the Self

"Amid the incessant chattering of radio and television, the near instantaneous connections of Ma Bell . . . thousands of Americans have quietly resumed the age-old practice of creating diaries and journals. Perhaps the greatest attraction of this return to writing is the opportunity it provides for being one's self away from besetting busyness and the demands and standards set forth by others." [George F. Simmons]

"The uses of writing for psychological health and fulfillment may be traced to ancient Greece where poetry was first recognized for its healing powers." [Alice Glarden Brand]


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Ledoux, Denis. Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories (Lisbon Falls, Maine: Soleil Press, 1993)

Moore, Cathy and Robin Freeman Bernstein. A Journal for Healing: Writing Through Pain and Illness (New York: Doubleday, 1996)

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future (New York: Collier Books, 1970)

Progoff, Ira. At a Journal Workshop: The Basic Text and Guide for Using the Intensive Journal Process (New York: Dialogue House Library, 1977)

Reznicek, Barbara. Journaling To Recovery (Abbey, 1989)

Rico, Gabrielle Lusser. Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way Through Personal Crisis (Putnam/Tarcher, 1991)

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______________. Journal for Life: Discovering Faith and Values Through Journal Keeping (1977)


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