What have you done for anyone lately?

I often wonder in this line of lawyerly work whether what we do matters. We all face these thoughts and moments, I suppose. One looks around and tries to find meaning in the work that one does. I used to envy my uncle, who was a teacher and a bricklayer [which was the trade he taught young people at the vocational school near my home] for this reason. I saw one of the fireplaces he built in a friend’s basement once – it was a work of art. It had a small oven on one side, followed the curve of the rock wall against which it lay, had small outcroppings for placing drinks and candles, a covered cubbyhole for the kindling and wood to sit neatly within, and an inlaid mantle. One could look at it once and immediately know that people would gather around it for decades, feeling its warmth and comfort. I envied him that feeling of pride in workmanship, more than once.

In this line of criminal work one sometimes has to search a bit harder for that inspiration. One can look to spiritual guidance for a sort of metaphorical lighthouse on the rocky shores of our daily workload of prison, mental illness, and human pain. In Isiah 61:1 it says, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD [is] upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to [them that are] bound.

In the Hadith, the companion to the Koran in Islam that helps the follower perform in a way that is true to God, the holy man Milak said, “Beware of the supplication of the oppressed, even if he is an unbeliever, for there is no screen between it and Allah”. Dogen, the Zen philosopher of the 13th century, spoke of the capacity for all men and women to act with “rigyo,” or the kindness and compassion that allows all of us to take care of each other immediately, in the here and now.

So, whatever path you the reader follow, whether you are a lawyer or a judge, a baker or fireman, a mother or a grandfather or a child, allow me to pose you a question today – if you ran into Dogen, or Jesus, or Mohammed, and one of these figures asked you “What have you done for me lately?”……what would your answer be?

Have you urged mercy for anyone? Visited a prisoner to teach them to read? Helped an addict?

Spoken out for the bullied or the oppressed? Fed a neighbor? Given shelter to a soul who lost their home?

The best and most noble part of all of our everyday lives is the simple opportunity, each and every day, to do something that helps someone else. All of our faiths and philosophies call us to do this, from the Talmud to the Tao. As lawyers, we often have the chance to ask for better and more decent justice, but we fail to grab the chance when it comes before us. So, as a lawyer who appears in front of criminal courts each week, let me say it first….I have often failed. I have failed to keep tirelessly seeking a more just result for my client because it just seemed too hopeless – the facts were too gruesome, the judge too angry, the prosecutor too busy. I have failed, too many times, and those failures weigh on me some days.

Yet each day in this hall of injustice, this factory that passes for a court system in our county, I, you, WE have a chance as criminal defense lawyers to find justice, to seek a better result, to free the prisoner, to comfort the lost, and to keep fighting. Every day is a chance to do one decent thing, to end one man or woman’s confinement, to ease one addict’s misery, to convince one overworked and underpaid prosecutor that they can make a difference to a traumatized veteran or a mentally woman, to persuade one harried and overburdened judge to grant mercy. Every day is a chance to do something for the higher powers we follow, albeit often blindly, to make a difference here, and to do justice now.  

This job has a price somedays. That is the truth. Yet every day in this job is a chance to do something for someone else, in a way that, I like to think, might make my uncle envy me, just a little.  It is one of the few callings on this earth that lets one do that, and somedays I am profoundly grateful for the privilege it gives all of us who do this work. So, maybe, someday, if I run into St. Peter or Buddha, and they ask me what I did for others in my walk on this place, I will look them in the eye, and say, “Well, for a little while, I was a criminal defense lawyer in Texas.”  

About P. F. McCann

McCann is a Houston attorney and a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association and the Fort Bend Criminal Lawyers Association. His office can be found online at writlawyer.net.