Lessons from Dr. King: Achieving His Dream and Living Your Dream Legal Career
Almost 55 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“…even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream”.
Regardless of your practice area or focus, most of us in the legal profession would certainly
regard Dr. King as a worthy role model to aspire to. Lawyers often deal with a perception that much of their work lacks a full understanding of the human person, which hurts the lawyer’s ability to passionately derive meaning from their work and advance common good. The billable hour model and price tag of law school adds to the perception that lawyers are fungible business service providers that only care about the bottom line.
Contrast this perception with the many lawyers who helped make Dr. King’s movement possible
and continue to work tirelessly to lift the country up to realize his dream. Lawyers, in essence,
are advocates for the interests of others with the ability to persuade and influence those who do
not always share their points of views.
Below, I want to share some important lessons that we can learn from Dr. King that would help
us contribute to his vision and have more fulfilling careers.
Once you spot the issues, identify the goals.
Dr. King knew the issues the country faced. In practice, whether working with a client on a
litigation or transactional matter, learn the issues that they are facing. Clearly define what it is
you are fighting for and where you draw your boundaries. Remember that although you have a
responsibility to your client, you also have a responsibility to the rule of law and the profession.
After applying this lesson to your practice, look to the broader community around you, and
identify issues that you can help address. Do not feel like you have to undertake grand and
glorious causes—remember that it is equally important to solve issues while they are smaller in
scale (before they snowball). If you think you have no cause to fight for, at least write down your
core beliefs. Look at them every day and see if you have fidelity to them. Once identified,
determine how you can promote these values in your everyday work. Individualize your goals
and purposes without personalizing them.
Pay attention to messaging.
Once you know the position you are advocating for, make sure your messaging is clear. Would
your colleagues be able to repeat your message back to you? Could the common person
describe what you stand for and the position you are arguing for? Whether you are leading a
meeting, arguing before a jury, or negotiating on behalf of a client, establish a core message.
Then adapt it to meet the circumstances you face.
Then take a step back and reflect on your career, and how you fit into the picture. Think about
the message that you are sending in how you approach your work, and take time to invest in
how you communicate (especially how you communicate nonverbally). Live the message.
Lawyers are not in the business of animating their messages throughout their busy
schedules—BUT they should understand that they will be viewed and judged as an example of
those they associate with (their clients, their colleagues at the firm, their fellow bar members).
Dr. King had to live his message in order to demonstrate to others how they should live their
lives. That is why his example is so powerful. Likewise, if you are looking to achieve a particular
career goal, you need to make sure you are doing more than just expressing that goal, but that
you are living the example that you deserve it.
This means that you will probably have to bite the bullet and take initiative to face tough
challenges. Not all of us will face the challenges and fight the causes that Dr. King did, but we
all have the opportunity to rise to the occasion when the need arises.
Understand dissenting views.
Peaceful protest and dissent is important to engage with. In our work, particularly in this political
climate, it is easy to condemn and vilify those whose views are different from ours. Dr. King did
not shame or dismiss the frustrations of those who saw differently than he did.
This is important in promoting civility with our colleagues we face as opposing counsel as well
as candidates across the aisle. Overcome the impulse to alienate those who see things
differently from you or to personalize another opinion as a personal attack.
Love what you do (again).
“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to
urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense … When we speak of loving those
who oppose us we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means
nothing sentimental or affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an
overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. ”
Many people seek attorneys because they feel angered or threatened. To properly and
professionally serve our clients, we must empathize with them. To provide excellent client
service, we must take a page from Dr. King and show empathy for the other side.
If you want to accomplish this, you must begin by properly showing that level of love and
commitment to yourself and your practice. Take the time to reconnect with matters that you are
passionate about, and advance your career in that direction. “In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense … When we speak of loving those who oppose us we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an are passionate about, and advance your career in that direction.