"I Don't Know..."

Random Musings


“I Don’t Know…”

I don’t know why this is so freaking hard for lawyers to say.

Why do we hold ourselves to the impossible standard of knowing everything, all the time? Is it ego? Fear of failure? The truth is I don’t know. There, I said it again, and it didn’t hurt.

It’s OK to not know something. It’s OK to sometimes feel insecure and uncertain.

To be sure, lawyers hate appearing weak or soft, and not knowing something suggests that. But real might reside in accepting your imperfection. Having the confidence to look someone in the eye and tell them that you don’t know something––that is the realm of true strength.

This even applies to your own internal dialogue. When you are uncertain about something, rather than kidding yourself with false thinking, admit your ignorance and figure out how to correctly assess the situation. Admit your ignorance even to yourself!

And when a client asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, instead of masking your uncertainty with double-talk, be honest and tell them you need to look it up. No excuses are necessary.

Or when you’re standing at the bench and you are asked about a case you don’t know, tell the judge you are unfamiliar with that case and if the court wants, you’d be glad to address it in a supplemental brief.

There are many things I don’t know. But this I do know…

If you work hard to be the most prepared lawyer in the courtroom, when you don’t know something, it actually works in your favor. If you have a history of being honest and knowledgeable, and you admit you don’t know something, you will then come across as even more credible, more sincere, and more human. Then your weakness becomes strength, your frailty becomes your power.

Be that lawyer, the one who is human.

The Successful Lawyer

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #9

No News is Good News

Now that the election’s over (thank goodness!) I have decided to go on a news diet. I’ll leave it to the pros (public-minded citizens and the press) to keep an eye on things while I take some time off to focus on more life-affirming stuff. 


Naval

I’ve been studying the work of Naval Ravikant, a Silicon Valley Sage and investor. I listened to Tim Ferris’ great podcast interview with him recently, and it changed how I look at life and success. 

In particular, I’m drawn to Naval’s practice of meditation (1 hour per day). As an added bonus, the interview offers a great introduction to the economics of Bitcoin. Take a listen. Also, check out the Almanack of Naval Ravikant for an introduction to his teaching and world view.


Revisiting an Old Friend

Thumbing through some old art books recently, I stumbled across a copy of Gail Levin’s “Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist.” I forgot how much I admired this art while studying art history. I appreciate the Zenlike depictions of loneliness and silence. “Nighthawks” is probably his most famous painting, which hangs in Chicago’s Art Institute. 

Nighthawks 1942

While “Nighthawks” is most popular, my favorites are “Summer Evening” and “Room in New York.” Both of these paintings touch on the themes of frustration and disconnectedness. 

“Summer Evening” reminds me of the first verse of Bruce Springsteen’s  great song, Thunder Road...“The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves, like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.” You can almost hear the cricket’s serenade, feel the humidity, and smell the sexual tension in this picture. 

Summer Evening 1947

“Room in New York,” depicts psychological isolation. It reminds me of the paintings of Degas, which portray how people “unrelate” rather than how they relate to each other. Notice how the romantic “artist” wears red (symbolizing passion) while the businessman or lawyer wears black and white (signifying pragmatism). I love the juxtaposition in the composition. The blending of these two polarities is akin to the yin and yang of the Tao.

Room in New York 1932

Ironically (considering my profession), I am drawn to Hopper’s depictions of  disconnected couples. Maybe Freud could figure out why this subject appeals to me! 


What I’m Listening To

Last month I inadvertently stumbled across the brilliant work of jazz artist Essbjorn Svenson  and his trio (E.S.T.). These days, I often listen to the trio while I write––it loosens the ink in my pen. Watch this beautiful live performance of their song From Gagarin’s Point of View. Eerie and beautiful. My discovery of this band was total serendipity, and I’m charmed by their music. 

I’ve also been listening to the late great Townes Van Zandt, who has always inspired me. Steve Earle said about him, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that!”  Irritated by this comment, Townes (who avoided fame and celebrity at all costs) responded, "I've met Bob Dylan's bodyguards, and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table, he's sadly mistaken." Bob was actually a huge fan of Townes, who died in 1997. I’m listening to his song “Dead Flowers,” while I write this. Check him out.


Quote I’m Thinking About

“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure.” — John F. Kennedy


So Long

As trial lawyers, our exposure to healthy diversions helps keep our balance and perspective. Take advantage of all the beauty you can, particularly during this stressful time of year. 

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving Holiday, 2021 is right around the corner. I predict it will be a great year! 

Stay in touch.

snpeskind@gmail.com • (630)444-0701

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #8

What's new?

Like many of you, I have encountered intense conflict at work. I recently read an interesting article about Jewel's meditation practice, where she observed that COVID's larger impact may be deteriorating mental health, more so than the disease itself. Boy, am I seeing that: more addiction, more domestic violence, and generally people unraveling and behaving badly. And at the same time, court resources have become more limited. It's really a toxic brew.

So we are doing our best to contain the madness. I think the intensity of the upcoming election doesn't help. I am yielding and just trying to surf the turbulent waters—praying for better days ahead for all of us.

On a happier note, my fourth grandson, Theodore Patrick Perez, was born September 2nd. They call him "Theo," but I am defying mom and dad by calling him "Teddy," hoping he'll grow up to be a Rough Rider. Big brother Bennett is digging his little brother. Mollie and Michael are tired but otherwise well. I know Mollie is enjoying her bonding time, but I selfishly can't wait to get her back to work! 

Speaking of Mollie, a case we tried together was recently featured in an article in the Atlantic: When the Misdiagnosis is Child Abuse. This article examines the problems resulting from the unchecked power of child abuse pediatricians. Too often, prosecutors and child protective authorities take the opinions of these doctors as gospel—a huge mistake with terrible consequences.

In our case, Mollie and I (along with our co-counsel extraordinaire, Matthew Haiduk) defended a prominent professional accused of breaking over 20 of her baby's bones. Mollie's investigation led to the indisputable conclusion that the bones were paper thin due to a bone disease brought on by an independent medical trauma. The State nevertheless prosecuted based on a child abuse pediatrician's opinion, who insisted that the child was abused. Our expert, a renowned orthopedic physician from the University of Chicago, concluded (and proved) the child had diseased bones, and the injuries were not the result of abuse. 

After a full trial, including both experts' testimony, the court dismissed all charges reuniting our client and her husband with their children. It was one of the most satisfying achievements of my career! It's rare that we have a "happily ever after" moment in family law, but this was one of them. 


Getting inspired!

Without the ability to get away right now, I am self-medicating with books. I just finished a great Zen book, One Blade of Grass, by Henry Shukman. The book is about one man's journey from a troubled self-absorbed kid to Zen Master. The book is part memoir and Zen tutorial. Shukman is also a published poet and writer, and the writing is outstanding. It was one of those books that I couldn't put down.

I am also reading a book about the career of Gerald Nissenbaum, "Sex Love and Money: Revenge and Ruin in the World of High-Stakes Divorce." It is a far cry from a Zen tutorial, although Jerry is a legal Samurai who wields the law like a sword. You wouldn't think it is relaxing to spend my few non-work hours reading about the exploits of one of America's great divorce lawyers—but it is exhilarating seeing how he used his brains and finesse to defeat the bad guys (that often populate my world as well). It's almost "Sherlock Holmes meets Al Capone." I am inspired by this book.

Finally, I would like to recommend an Old PBS series, "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth." Campbell, the philosopher and author of "The Hero with a Thousand Faces inspired the Star Wars Trilogy with his examination of the hero myth. 

In this series, journalist Bill Moyers interviews Campbell about his teachings and insights into human identity. I watched this series when it first came out, and what struck me then was Campbell's notion of finding happiness by "following your bliss." Looking back 30 years later and thinking about my many transcendent moments in the courtroom, that advice has served me well. 


Writing

My Divorce Trial Manual is winding down. What a vast topic, bigger than I realized when I agreed to write it. But it is a work of love, and I can't wait to share it with all of you. Stay tuned.

After the Presidential debate, I was so rattled, I got up the next morning and wrote this post about countering bad conduct during an argument. The debate hit way too close to home for me. As Sue told me, I obviously needed some therapy after the debacle, and writing is my way of making sense of things. In a similar vein, I also wrote an article on emotional regulation called Reactivity 101. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? I think we all need to turn down the volume a bit, particularly during these difficult times. 

My writing teacher Ellen Fishbein has been teaching me how to write poetry in the style of a Shakespearean Sonnet––a far cry from my usual free verse format. It's much more challenging to convey the message within the confines of rhyme and iambic pentameter. But that said, it is a discipline that I like, and this format helps me appreciate the brilliance of the bard. 


Speaking of poetry, I want to share a poem by another poet whose work I admire, Jim Harrison:

Doors

I'm trying to create an option for all

these doors in life. You're inside

or out, outside or in. Of late, doors

have failed us more than the two-party system

or marriages comprising only one person.

We've been fooled into thousands of dualisms

which the Buddha says is a bad idea.

Nature has portals rather than doors.

There are two vast cottonwoods near a creek

and when I walk between them I shiver.

Winding through my field of seventy-seven

large white pine stumps from about 1903

I take various paths depending on spirit.

The sky is a door never closed to us.

The sun and moon aren't doorknobs.

Dersu Uzala slept outside for forty-five years.

When he finally moved inside he died.

Jim Harrison at his cabin in Montana.

This poem is somewhat inscrutable to me. Much like a Zen koan, I don't believe it is accessible to the logical mind. It requires a different realm of consciousness to understand it. I'm not there yet! I find this poem mysterious and beautiful.


So long for now. Be kind to yourself and others. Be patient—we're all carrying a heavy load right now. Drop a line or give me a call. I would love to catch up.

snpeskind@gmail.com • (630)444-0701

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #7

What's New at Work

Well, the world has reopened, and the predicted surge in new divorce filings has come true. New cases are pouring in. A good problem to have for a divorce lawyer.

While we continued to work our cases remotely during the lockdown, many lawyers viewed the lockdown as an extended vacation. Now they need to play catch up because their impatient clients are clawing at them to get to the finish line TODAY!

These sleepers are trying to squeeze three months of inactivity into three weeks, leading to long days for all of us.

Our family court judges have done a great job embracing the brave new world of COVID justice, but things are still somewhat anarchic. "Is that hearing at court or on Zoom?" "Where's the invite for the Zoom?" "What's the new protocol for scheduling?" etc.

For many lawyers, nerves are fraying, and chronic crabbiness is the result. Ugh! I need to keep meditating.

Procedural confusion, combined with broad cultural stress and uncertainty, makes for interesting times. I am ready for some boring normalcy, but I don't see that coming any time soon.

Non-Work Stuff

What I've been listening to nonstop.

I can't remember the last time I found myself listening to an album ceaselessly — maybe not since high school. In the last few weeks, I've had that experience again, with Bob Dylan's new album, "Rough and Rowdy Ways." It just always seems to be on—at home, on my way into the office, even while training. I've found myself steadily turning to it.

At 79, Dylan hasn't missed a beat. I've been thinking about creative inspiration a lot, and that causes me to marvel even more at how much he has produced over his career. Creative excellence clearly need not wither with age. Bob proves that.

The rhythm, the pacing, and the vibe are just great. He's almost rapping throughout the album, reminiscent in some ways of the early folky Bob. In particular, I like his songs "Black Rider" and "I Contain Multitudes" (tip of the hat to Walt Whitman). Listen to the album and let me know if you agree.

I am also listening to a jazz singer I just stumbled upon. The poet Billy Collins (another poet I admire) does a live daily Facebook reading and mini-lecture. There he turned me onto a singer by the name of Blossom Dearie. Her smooth style is a great contrast to Bob's gravel and growl.

Contrast always makes life interesting!

Writing

I continue to write daily. My new book is coming along, and I hope to have my first draft done by Labor Day. I also continue to work on blog posts and have resumed writing poetry. 

My Top Gun project is "zooming" along as well. Watch my interview of the great trial lawyer Anita Ventrelli, and read my blog about her illustrious career. She has been my friend and guru for years. 

Last month, I started working with writing teacher Ellen Fishbein. Ellen and I meet weekly, and I'm excited to work with such an accomplished writer. She is helping me improve both my writing and thinking. She is a poet and professional writer, as well as a teacher. Check her out here. Let me know if you notice a difference in my style over the next couple of months.

What I'm Reading

I am enjoying Ward Farnsworth's "Classic English Style." Mr. Farnsworth is the Dean of the University of Texas Law School, and this book is the third in his series on communication. His two prior books were on Metaphor and Rhetoric. Great resources. 

In this third installment of his trilogy, Farnsworth features Lincoln, Churchill, and other historical figures as models of good writing. Topics include the selection of words, the arrangement of a sentence, and the creation of a cadence. 

This book is interesting and informative and not a stuffy academic treatise. Four stars.

I'm also reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I knew very little about her until I listened to Tim Ferris' podcast interview of her.

I became smitten immediately. She is insightful, funny, and extremely bright. 

How do you find your creative inspiration? It's as simple as inviting it into your life, Gilbert advises. Making an earnest commitment opens the door to your muse. 

I just finished Mary Karr's book "The Art of Memoir." She is another of my literary crushes. Her prose is direct, fresh, and compelling. Her use of metaphor is amazing. 

Even if you're not inclined to write a memoir, this book is worth your time. Karr weaves her personal story throughout the book and uses it to illustrate the art of memoir. She is an accomplished memoirist and poet (and a hell of a writer). 

Next on the horizon: After reading Donna Tartt's article in the Sunday NY Times book review on Charles Portis, I ordered his most famous book, True Grit (yes, the source of the movie). I'll report next month. Read the Tartt article here.

Reflections

If you run away from something and it catches up to you, it will be 10x worse than if you just faced it head on from the start.” — Ed Latimore

We're at the very start of a long and poorly lit road. Accept the road, accept its length, and bring illumination. Fix the road as you go. Help those stranded by the roadside. Be patient with others -- and go easy on yourself. You're here for a reason.” — Jordan Furlong

Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” — Bruce Lee

Ok, that's it for me. Stay strong, everyone. I hope you have a great summer and stay safe. Reach out if you have a chance. I hope to hear from you. 

snpeskind@gmail.com • (630)444-0701

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #6

I have been super busy the last few weeks. Let me share what’s going on:

Top Guns: Interviews With America’s Best Divorce Lawyers

As a Diplomate of the American College of Family Trial Lawyers, I have access to some of the greats of the profession. I got the idea of compiling their wisdom into articles about what makes them top guns. I have started interviewing these superstar divorce lawyers to deconstruct their habits, influences, systems, and superpowers (tip of the hat to Tim Ferris). I am posting the interviews on The Successful Lawyer YouTube Channel. I am also blogging about the lessons learned from each interview. 

My first interview was with the great Cary Mogerman from St. Louis. Many of you know Cary, but you will know him much better if you watch my interview with him. I have concluded that his superpower is wisdom and emotional maturity. After you watch the interview, let me know if you agree. If they gave a Nobel Prize for being a mensch, Cary would be on his way to Stockholm!

 Check out my article about what I learned from Cary’s interview, here.

TSL Resource Page

We have just developed a Resource Page on The Successful Lawyer website. I wanted to have a central place to post helpful reference information about the practice. I will periodically post links to articles and books that inspire me. Note the biographies of great trial lawyers. I get energized by reading about great trials and trial lawyers and would urge others to drink from this well of knowledge as well.

Communicators-In-Chief

I just finished a great book on writing and rhetoric: “Communicators-In-Chief: Lessons in Persuasion from Five Eloquent American Presidents.” This book blew me away. The author is Julie Oseid, is a Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. Professor Oseid provides legal writing lessons by studying the writing styles of Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt. But in my opinion, this book goes well beyond legal writing; it schools anyone on how to write and think more clearly.

After reading the book, I blogged on it (read it here) and reached out to Professor Oseid. She agreed to do a Zoom interview with me. I could have talked to her for 20 hours! Her book combined three of my primary interests: reading, writing, and Presidential history. 

What a treat it was to talk to her.

Some Random Stuff

  • I have been studying old Jack Benny shows from the 1950s on YouTube. Jack was the master of the pregnant pause. While he perfected it to get laughs, I consider it a quintessential tool for a trial lawyer as well. Watch this clip and tell me if you agree.

  • Instead of chopping up a recalcitrant witness with a verbal hacksaw, maybe a brief pause with a sardonic “Benny-like” look at the Judge will work better. Silence can be a powerful tool for a trial lawyer. Read my friend Bret Rapport’s article, “Talk Less”: Eloquent Silence in the Rhetoric of Lawyering.

  • When I interviewed Cary, he suggested I watch the Japanese Movie Departures. It’s about a young man, Daigo, who takes a job doing ritualistic washing of corpses before their cremation. The film depicts Japanese cultural aversion to this profession and how Daigo overcomes it to find purpose and meaning in his life. Cary pointed out the parallels between this profession and ours. In both, despite people’s aversion to us, we must help them transcend their emotional pain. It is a beautiful and powerful film. The cinematography and score are amazing. I highly recommend it. 

Reflections

What is something that feels productive to you in the moment, but usually ends up wasting time and energy?” — James Clear

Focus on What brings you energy, not what sucks it away.” — Daily Zen

It’s not that online trials are better than in person. It’s that litigation became lazy, bloated, and torpid, and we all know why. Now we spend less money and time to get the same or better results. We need to keep this new pace and culture when we return.” — Jordan Furlong

Well, that’s it for this month. I hope everyone is staying safe and sane. Don’t forget, “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” I wish everyone well!

Stay in touch.

Loading more posts…