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On Masks and the Practice of Law

Bob wears masks. As he enters a client meeting he digs into his vast collection and dons his client-facing mask. He straightens up and greets his client with a familiar smile. He speaks in a soothing, rhythmic cadence. He maintains utter composure as his client flails about, in turns lost, angry, and pleading. When the meeting is over Bob takes a deep breath. As he returns to his office it occurs to him that of all his masks, this is the one that never seems to fit quite right. It’s a good time for a coffee and a stroll before he returns to his office.

Later, Bob’s managing partner knocks on the office door. Bob picks out his partner-facing mask, perks up, and chats with her as they discuss the day-to-day goings-on. As always there are a few pestering, persistent fires to put out and a few small wins to cheer. After many years, he has learned to think of everyday as having both good and bad moments. As she leaves he sits back for a bit and lets his mask fall. Then he proceeds with the morning’s work.

At lunch time he goes to his usual restaurant and, donning his restaurant-facing mask, orders the usual fare of fish and chips. It is an easy mask to wear, so long as his usual server is there. As he scans his phone a young lawyer comes up to him, one of his associates. Donning his associates-facing mask, he asks her to join him. It is a conversation he has had many times, a mixture of career guidance, chatting about files, and getting-to-know-you questions. If nothing else, these are among his most familiar masks.

On day’s end Bob packs up and goes home. He greets his family, eats a quick dinner, and, as is his habit, shuts out the world as he catches a game, the world spinning around him. His masks have gotten heavy and he can wear no more. A good game and a night’s sleep, he hopes, will power him up again.

If all the world is a stage, and we the players, our masks are necessary tools to function. They can be necessary evils through which we reach our goals and fulfil our values, or they can be eagerly embraced on our way to authenticity. The argument for authenticity arises from the Aristotelian ideal to act the right way because we want to, because we are built that way, because we are intrinsically motivated to. If we are able to find masks that fit perfectly, deriving energy and happiness from the majority of activities we do, then it follows that achieving happiness would be easier. Would Bob be as tired at the end of the day if he intrinsically loved to interact with clients, partners, and associates? Would he be better suited for an introverted research position, or a less administrative of-counsel role? Perhaps, but the resulting hit to his income and concomitant standard of living would require a reset to other values he holds.

Consider what we mean when we say “better suited”. Is he better suited in another position than his current position? He may be excellent at what he already does – not liking a mask is not the same as not being good at it. But perhaps the negative effects are felt when his defences are down, when, as in his personal relationships, he wishes to put down his masks and be loved for who he is. Does he then have the energy to nourish those relationships?

Which brings us to a second sense of “better suited”: does his current position suit his life? Which is the probably the more important question. It may be important to him to work less, make less money, and be more present when he is away from work. Or it may not. The point is to understand our values and to accept the negative aspects of our choices.

It is not necessarily the case that to become more authentic, we should seek out those opportunities which best fit our current sources of energy and happiness. We do not necessarily only have one authentic self to which the world must fit. Can we not shape ourselves and change how we react to events? Can Bob choose what feelings he wants to have when he puts on a mask? Perhaps it is also possible to work on our personalities to adapt to the events of our chosen profession.

Young lawyers often ask me if they should change firms, change themselves, change professions, or go out on their own. I say: go where you can become the authentic person you are or want to be.

Comments

  1. People or persons who feel that they have to wear masks gives me chills (not in a good way). Doesn’t having to wear masks an indication of trouble ahead. Everyone wearing masks I would imagine could lead to a toxic culture and environment both in the workplace and in the home. A person needing to wear masks may have resentments that transpire into passive aggressive behaviour or even more overt aggressive behaviour.

    The mention of wearing masks brings to mind all the front page stories of professional power couples wearing happy masks beneath which are hidden domestic violence leading to uxoricide or spousal/partner murder. The popular man with an active social life whose friends and family can’t believe that beneath the mask lies a serial killer. An attractive couple with pictures of their fairy tale wedding who turn out to be rapists and serial killers. These are the images that come to mind when people wear masks.

    On the other hand would people who describe themselves as wearing different hats whether at their job or in their everyday life tasks be a more authentic person? Somehow the admittance of wearing different hat to do a different task seems less nefarious than hiding behind a mask or just my imagine running on overdrive.

  2. Verna, I see where you are coming from. Yet there are two kinds of masks. On one hand, there is the mask one wears to obscure one’s real face; on the other, there is the mask one wears to protect oneself. On the front lines of family law, wearing no mask at all, my real face would be destroyed.

  3. A. Lawyer, yes sometimes there is a need for protective mask especially for those consistently faced with traumatic situations. Care is also needed here as well because to internalize such stress can lead to harm to self and to others . This is an issue we must all be mindful of especially those like yourself who confront trauma on the front lines.

  4. Thanks for the comments. The mask is an analogy and does not necessarily always work. Sometimes the lines blur between the face we show people and the person we really are. Sometimes this is necessary, sometimes this is painful, sometimes this is just being polite. Thoughtful comments…

  5. Verna, thank you for your kind words, and for reminding me of the importance of self-care! I needed it just now.

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