Lawyers often think of themselves as competitors in an athletic sense. We speak in terms of winning cases, beating opponents, and standing out from our peers.
And the legal field itself is competitive in the ecological sense too, where lawyers and law firms compete for business from a limited pool of clients, who choose our services carefully.
But I want to approach the concept of competition from a different angle today. What are the origins of the word ‘compete’? The first part is easy: It’s the latin word com, which means to bring together. The etymology of the second part, however, may be surprising. That is ‘petere’, which draws its origins from seeking, striving, and even beseeching, or begging.
This word—to compete—is a communion of seeking, strivings, and requests. Probably it is because we are human beings, who live in a difficult world, that we almost always imagine that our goals and desires are limited by the aspirations and dreams of others. We think of finite and diminishing resources, closed systems and zero-sum games, where there are winners and losers. And there are winners and losers, there is no way to deny this, especially in the practice of law.
But just as some dynamic systems are capable of growth, rather than decay, and some games are infinite, rather than closed, there are ways to think of competition as something beautiful, like a harmony.
Perhaps a competitive law firm is in harmony with itself, where its lawyers share the same vision for their clients’ needs, and work together to seek similar ways of asking questions, and responding thoughtfully to the answers they hear. Maybe a competitive lawyer is someone who understands that his opponent on the other side of the aisle is striving for the same professionalism and grace in her argumentation. That in our motions and in our writing, we aren’t only working to deliver outcomes, we are working to save the profession of law from itself—as if saving a friend from cynicism on a bad day.
There are moments in life when one person must win, and wins handily. Others lose badly. But there are also moments in this career when one takes a step back, and looks at the tennis court, at the two players dancing between the lines and, as if effortlessly, guiding the ball to the most unlikely places, back and forth. There are trials and mediations, depositions and motion practice, that achieve a kind of art.
It’s sublime to listen to a multi-part harmony, matches between athletes, and fierce arguments between lawyers, twisted like the double helix of DNA. That’s what I wanted to think about today.
Maybe this little shape offers a way to celebrate the competitive law firm in its ecology of strivings. Maybe it will allow us to a step back and thank our adversaries, and all clients who have dreams of being made whole, and living better lives.
Scott Herndon has a PhD in Literature and Philosophy from New York University. He has taught at Stanford University and the University of California, and is the Principal at The Law Office of Scott Herndon, PC, in Berkeley, CA. Scott is a Plaintiff’s Trial Lawyer, focusing on catastrophic personal injury and civil sexual abuse and assault on behalf of victims.