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The Practice Corner: Leadership in the Face of Despair

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

I have noticed this year that it is more and more difficult for me to watch the evening news when I get home. There are stories and updates about the wars, about flu epidemics, health care reform, and sobering reports about the economy. Each of these topics affects all of us in one way or another, yet together they seem to overwhelm us. It is quite simple to become numb or succumb to a feeling of helplessness. For me, it is as though the problem is so colossal that it is difficult to envision a solution.

As lawyers, we are problem solvers. We practice in all different areas and represent all sorts of clients. Some of us spend our time anticipating and preventing problems for our clients. When I look at things from this perspective, I find the helplessness and hopelessness I feel to be unreasonable and irresponsible. I think we owe it to our community to acknowledge its needs and contribute, to take part in critical thinking and action that will inspire hope in others.

I am not suggesting that as attorneys we are superior to others around us, but I do believe that the ethical protocols that govern our professional lives impose upon us a duty to think critically and proactively. Although the solutions to some of the massive troubles facing our community may not be legal in nature, think about how often the service we give to our clients transcends mere legal advice. Just as our clients can look to us to be the voice of reason, our community should look to us as the voice of hope and responsible leadership.

As the holiday season approaches, the humanity of our community blossoms and inspires. There are food drives, toy drives, and other charitable endeavors that call for us to support those in need. Although it is more difficult for many to give, I believe most will continue to contribute this year, as they have in the past, mindful that their own situations could be far worse. Yet, as important as the contributions to charitable organizations are, for me, writing checks alone has not and will not alleviate the helpless feeling I described. The only way to do this is by donating something more of ourselves, such as our time.

Charitable donations and volunteerism are both essential to building and maintaining strong communities, such as ours. Increasing participation in one cannot diminish the need for participation in the other. As lawyers, we can take part in pro bono work that affords us the opportunity to put our own unique skills to work. We can also volunteer with other community outreach projects. My point is that the only way any of us can feel a sense that we are turning the gears to move our community in the right direction is to take a more active approach.

I should clarify that the type of contribution and leadership necessary at this time is not limited to organized volunteerism. That service is as vital as ever, but I am speaking more of the sort of contribution we can make by keeping our eyes open to those around us. When we make a conscious effort to be aware of others’ needs, we can create hope from despair. Vigilance and leadership alone will not solve the tremendous adversity that our community faces. It will not create jobs or end wars. What it will do is inspire, empower, and demonstrate that those who feel isolated and despondent are not alone.

The sense of helplessness I sometimes feel comes from the idea that the problems are so great I cannot solve them. However, this analysis is flawed from the start. The problems are not mine alone to solve. They are not greater than our community, and with the right leadership and contribution, the challenges can all be met. After all, even in our everyday problem-solving roles, we rely on others to achieve our clients’ objectives. In extraordinary times like these, we must rise to the occasion and demonstrate that action will overcome despair.

For myself, 2009 will end on a somber note. I look to 2010 and the difficulties that it will see for our community as a year of rebuilding. The notion that the worst is behind us is the only state of mind from which optimism and activism will spring forth. It is this very state of mind and collective goodwill that will unite and strengthen our community. I would implore each of you to make a conscious effort to exchange feelings of helplessness for optimism and contribution.

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