What I Learned Outside the Law Office by Joseph A. Condo

Thirty-six years I’ve been doing this. And, turning sixty-one in a few weeks, I don’t have any plans to stop — or even slow down — any time soon.

So far it’s been a fascinating, sometimes harrowing, sometimes exhiliarating ride. Like any full and interesting life, it certainly hasn’t been a straight line: Benjamin Franklin said that all rising to a high place is by a winding stair. Looking about me and taking stock, I see that I have, indeed, attained a high place, with a breathtaking view. But I’m not speaking here about my professional standing. No, I refer to my “non-office” life, as a guy who happens to be a lawyer, but has the far more important roles of husband, companion, father, grandfather, friend, mentor, and probably a few more.

I am very lucky: somewhere along the way I had the great good fortune to recognize the essential primacy of my life as a human being, the importance of not permitting myself to be defined by the profession I practice. Don’t get me wrong, I glory in the practice of law. Anyone who knows me can tell you that. I’m convinced that it’s what I was put here to do, and I can’t imagine having done anything else. But the law can trap you. The law can blind you. The relentless daily press of client demands, practice management, and just trying to make a good living can shunt everything else aside. One of the insidious effects of this narrow focus and absorption with lawyering is that it can — and often does — keep us from discerning the rich texture of the world that exists outside the four walls of the law office, and from learning the lessons and achieving the wisdom that world has to offer.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates told us. Being a naturally reflective person, I have always taken this to heart and, over the years I’ve had a occasion to ponder some of the resonant, lasting insights I’ve gained in my six decades. One thing that’s clear to me is that most of the valuable, profound things I’ve learned were learned outside the office. I learned them from my wonderful wife of forty years. I learned them from my kids. I learned them from my siblings, my in-laws, and the rest of my extended family. I learned them from my friends. Yes, some of them I learned from my colleagues in the law, but largely in personal, and not professional, settings.

I had occasion to collect some of this “wisdom” some years ago, in a letter to a young friend of mine. This young man had been working in my office since his senior year in high school. What started out as an employer-employee relationship became a mentorship and a friendship and, when he was leaving to transfer from Northern Virginia Community College to UVA, I wrote my friend a letter, and presumed to try to impart to him some of the things I’d learned that I thought were most important. Here is what I wrote:

  • Keep your sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Dame Margot Fonteyn said, “The one important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking oneself seriously. The first is imperative, and the second is disastrous.”
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. All that can be asked of you is that you do the best you can. If you’ve done that and you haven’t measured up to someone’s expectations, just try to learn from the experience; don’t beat yourself up about it.
  • Take reasonable risks; dare to fail. Anyone who’s ever accomplished anything significant had to take risks to do it. No successful person becomes that way without failing a lot. Don’t be afraid of failure; it’s life’s teacher and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Just learn from it and keep going. As the actress Mary Pickford said, “This thing we call failure is not about falling down. It’s about not getting up.”
  • Never hesitate to ask for help from the people who care about you. Human beings were never intended to exist independently. We all need to ask someone else’s help every so often. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to do this.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your feelings. The people you love (or are grateful to, or owe apologies to, or admire) won’t be around forever. Tell them how you feel now, before it’s too late.
  • Take life in digestible doses. “By the yard, life is hard; by the inch, it’s a cinch.” It’s hard to strike a balance between planning ahead and taking life one day at a time; but lean towards the day-at-a-time side.
  • “This, too, shall pass away.” Life really does run in cycles. Bad times — and good times — don’t last forever; they always run their course.
  • Keep your perspective. Things are rarely as bad as they seem. (And they always look ten times worse in the middle of the night than they look the next morning.) Step back. Take a deep breath. Let troubles sit for a bit. Time usually helps.
  • Have a good time. Whatever else you do, make sure to enjoy yourself, whatever part of your life you’re in. Remember: life is not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

I ended the letter with this verse from the Dan Fogelberg song, “Part of the Plan” (with apologies to those of you whose religious beliefs it may conflict with — it is a song, after all):

There is no Eden, no heavenly gate, that you’re gonna make it to one day.
All of the answers you seek can be found in dreams that you dream along the way.

Once in a while we are fortunate enough to come across something someone else has said or written that expresses ideas or insights we know, but haven’t ever verbalized. So it is with a beautiful framed quotation that my wife gave me many years ago. It hangs on my office wall, and I would like to close with this prescription for a fulfilling life. The author’s name is Mary Anne Radmacher Hershey:

Live with intention
Walk to the edge
Listen hard
Practice wellness
Play with abandon
Choose with no regret
Continue to learn
Appreciate your friends
Do what you love
Live as if this is all there is.

© 2009 Joseph A. Condo, Esq.

Joe Condo, of McLean, VA, is the senior and founding partner of Condo Kelly and Byrnes, P.C. He has been president of both the Virginia State Bar (2000-01) and the Fairfax Bar Association (1985-86), has chaired the family-law sections of both organizations, and has served a total of eighteen years on the Virginia State Bar's governing Council.

View other Reflections essays Updated: Sep 23, 2009