It is that time of year -- life without baseball and with rain gutters brimming full of leaves. At least the political attack commercials are finally in respite until spring primary season. Many of us have Thanksgiving on our minds, and for some lawyers, the pending holiday brings moaning and groaning instead of the intended counting of blessings and giving of thanks.
When I think of Thanksgiving, I think about my Nana's mashed potatoes and Arlo Guthrie's anti-war anthem, "Alice's Restaurant," in four-part harmony, of course. Each Thanksgiving, my folks would count off the kids, pack up the station wagon and head over the river and through the woods to my Nana's house. At some point in the day, often in the car ride, we could listen to the radio simulcast of Guthrie's ballad and all sing along, in five-part disharmony.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by Nana's big hugs and the most incredible cooking smells, all the results of hours of dicing and slicing, paring and caring, chopping and whipping and basting and tasting. What amazes me is how Nana made everything with a coal stove and without any electronic appliances -- a banquet by hand. My favorite part of the feast was always Nana's homemade, hand-whisked mashed potatoes; so much tastier than the instant potatoes out of a box we ate during the rest of the year.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, and not just because of Nana's mashed potatoes. I love all things fall, the season between weather extremes. Thanksgiving was extra special in my family -- a time to focus on food and football, a celebration without the commercialism or hype of the major religious holidays.
Religion did play a big part in the first American Thanksgiving, a three-day harvest festival in Massachusetts in 1621 when the Pilgrims gave thanks and celebrated their first anniversary in the "New World." They shared a bountiful harvest with the Wampanoag Indians who had helped the new immigrants survive their first winter. It actually took a while for the holiday to take full hold though. For instance, George Washington proclaimed a national day of giving thanks in 1789, but not everyone, including Thomas Jefferson, liked the idea.
Many credit a woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, magazine editor and poet (she also wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"), for the national holiday. Hale was one of our country's first woman novelists and went on a 40-year, one-woman mission (obsession?) to create a national day of gratitude, including writing numerous editorials and letters to five consecutive U.S. presidents. Although Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan ignored her requests, President Lincoln thought the holiday was just what a post-Civil War America needed, and established national Thanksgiving Day in 1863. Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation was also all about religion, proclaiming a day "of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens," "offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him," "His tender care," his "Almighty hand" and "divine purpose."
Every president since Lincoln has proclaimed the day and, after a few date changes, Congress decided in 1941 to celebrate Thanksgiving annually on the fourth Thursday of November. In his first Thanksgiving Proclamation last year, President Obama called on Americans to express "gratitude for all we have received in the past year; to express appreciation to those whose lives enrich our own; and to share our bounty with others."
While I do not always agree with him, I like the president's attitude about our day of gratitude and I think it is particularly good advice for lawyers -- to be grateful to those we have, grateful for what we have and to share our riches. For some lawyers, I realize these are not easy things to do.
Thanksgiving is a wake-up call that year's end is right around the bend. For some, the alarm brings pressures of measuring metrics and predicting productivity and profitability, collecting and counting revenue and evaluating expenses. It is also performance evaluation season at many firms, which brings its share of stresses, too. With all of this on our minds, how can we be thankful?
A few weeks ago, I read a blog post that helped me understand why lawyers may have difficulty with gratitude. The post appeared on lawyerswellbeing.com, a blog penned by Harvey Hyman, a Dalai Lama-like lawyer adviser. Hyman reported on a chat with Robert Emmons, PhD, a U.C. Irvine Davis professor, whom Hyman referred to as "the world's foremost expert in the science of gratitude." Who knew it was a science?
Hyman asked Emmons about lawyers, and the professor replied he "had never before or since encountered a bunch of people more resistive to embracing an attitude of gratitude, except perhaps teenagers." When Hyman asked why, the learned professor explained the main obstacles were fear of dependence, indebtedness and loss of control, and a tendency to always remain in problem-solving mode.
It made sense to me, as most of us lawyers are control freaks. We also were trained to spot issues, to tear things apart and to look for the hidden problems. We look for what is wrong or what could go wrong, and don't pay any attention to what is good and what is right. We don't count our blessings but, instead, talk about what bugs us, what is wrong with our lives and what is wrong with the world.
I did not find an abundance of other information about lawyers and thankfulness in my research, although I discovered Marcus L. Urann, the lawyer who created cranberry sauce, and was one of the original founders of Ocean Spray. I will be sure to point that at this year's family gathering when the lawyer jokes start.
We sure do get more than our share of jokes, but our profession is noble and we should be proud and grateful to be lawyers. While bad lawyers make headlines, good lawyers change and even save lives. Our jobs are not dangerous and we usually don't have to work outside in bad weather. Think about those Chilean miners -- we have no fear of being stuck underground for 69 days and nights with 32 of our coworkers.
I realize some readers may be unemployed and other lawyers are not happy in their jobs. You still have plenty of reasons to give thanks for what you do have. Not everyone has the opportunities to go to college and law school, and not everyone possesses the abilities to read, to argue, to counsel and to negotiate. While not all of us are millionaires, most of us are comfortable, and we should not take our comforts, or our health and welfare, for granted.
We also should not take the people in our lives for granted, either. Instead, this is a great time of year to be thankful for -- and to expressly thank -- our clients, support staff, coworkers, friends, families and even our bosses.
In "The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law" (yes, another book for the reading pile), authors Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder discuss how important appreciation is for career satisfaction and point out how firms which are considered the best places to work are those with programs encouraging gratitude. Quoting Dave Pollard's "How to Save the World" blog, the authors remind us, "What people seek from others, more than anything else, is attention and appreciation."
That is certainly true for lawyers, and every satisfaction survey and report I read asks about how appreciated -- or unappreciated -- the lawyers feel.
I felt appreciated as a young lawyer and know I was spoiled. I almost always received verbal thanks after assignments and was rewarded occasionally with written thank-you notes, show and ball game tickets and even flowers from partners. I realize it is a different world today and most lawyers busily move on to the next case or deal or project without time to acknowledge those who helped with the last one.
So, for Thanksgiving 2010, I am reminding you -- and me -- to find time to give thanks and be thankful. I remind us to count our blessings and to appreciate the "what" and the "who" in our lives -- not whine about what is missing. I remind us to share our bounties and to give back to our communities with charity and with service. I remind us to reflect on why we are grateful.
I am grateful for poets like Sarah Hale and Arlo Guthrie and for the power to elect presidents like Lincoln and Obama. I am grateful for the memories of my Nana's Thanksgiving dinners and to Marcus Urann for creating cranberry sauce. I am most grateful for and to those who put up with me, my coworkers and friends, Rich, Casey the dog and the rest of my family (especially my brother Mike, whose mashed potatoes are almost as good as Nana's).
I also am grateful to you, dear readers, even when you don't agree with what I write. I appreciate knowing someone is reading and I wish you a joyous holiday. Remember to be grateful lawyers and be grateful, lawyers. Who knows, like "Alice's Restaurant," we just may start a movement.
Molly Peckman is director of associate development at Dechert and a frequent writer and lecturer on law firm life and professional development. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article first appeared in Young Lawyer.