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.

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #5


Greetings from the Ether World:
Truly an unprecedented time. As I write this, I am staring outside my study window in a low-density suburban neighborhood, watching my neighbors walk by my house, with some nervously scurrying to the other side of the street to avoid any contact. I suppose this is simply prudent, but it still looks surreal! Some days I feel like I am living in a post-apocalypse Magritte painting.


After the initial flurry of activity at the office, reassuring clients and figuring out court closures and new procedures, we are settling into a good routine working remotely. 

Mrs. P. is taking social distancing seriously, and I am cloistered (like hopefully all of you). We are chatting with grandsons on Facetime. Sadly, no hugs allowed. 

Other than missing the boys, I am quite content with my new routine. I have more time to read, write, walk, and think. And I am still working as well, just in a different (and frankly more efficient) manner. Also, I have been spending a lot of time on my studies and my upcoming book on divorce litigation and trial advocacy.

R2D2 in the Courthouse

Consciousness, once it expands, doesn’t contract to its former size. 

Like a too small sweater that stretches to accommodate the person putting it on, cultural advancement doesn’t return to its former dimension either. 

The plague will pass at some point, but I believe many of the changes and adaptations will remain long past COVID-19. I also believe our use of technology in the courtroom will explode, and we will incorporate its favors to benefit our clients and the practice broadly. 

Some helpful references on virtual trial practice that I am paying attention to:

I read an article recently about the lack of lawyers in smaller rural Illinois communities, and online justice may be one of the solutions for these unfortunate citizens. Last week I wrote a letter to Illinois Chief Justice Anne Marie Burke volunteering to serve on any committees she creates to investigate technology and practice after the deluge. I strongly believe in the potential benefits of technology in the courtroom and hope she allows me to participate.

What say you? Write if you agree or have any thoughts about the downside of technology in our courts. I’d be interested in hearing from you.

What I’m Studying

With my extra time, I have been researching my book and studying some interesting texts. Right now, I am focused on the writing of Michael Tigar. Tigar, a trial lawyer and former law professor writes about the art and science of trial advocacy. He has been involved with many high profile trials over the years, including the defense of Terry Nichols in the OKC bombing case. The primary Tigar texts that I am working through include:

In the beginning of Chapter One of “Examining Witnesses,” he observes:

If you would undertake a project, you should first envision it completed, then figure out what materials, tools, and techniques you must use to do it. If you want to build a house, you will first see it complete in your mind’s eye, then perhaps sketch it.

If you are going to try a lawsuit, you must first think about the trial as a whole and then consider what materials (witnesses, evidence), tools (arguments, questions), and techniques (leading questions, styles of discourse) you will use. More broadly, if you are going to make a profession of trying cases, you must first understand the trial process and then analyze what your role in it will be. 

What a great distillation of trial advocacy! I urge anyone interested in improving their skills to spend some time with Professor Tigar. You won’t be sorry. Take advantage of this quiet time to improve your knowledge and your skills. See my blog on this subject. 

I would also urge everybody to read Five Ways to Write Like George Conway III. Regardless of your politics, it is a great article on improving your legal writing. I found it very insightful and helpful. 

Advocacy Advice:

Yes, there’s such a thing as luck in trial work, but it only comes at 3:00 o’clock in the morning... You’ll find me in the library looking for luck at 3:00 o’clock in the morning.” — Louis Nizer

I have watched the reflection of the rising sun on my computer screen many a morning while my opponents have slept their lives away, so peacefully.” — Gerry Spence

In many ways, a trial, like skydiving, is not inherently difficult; however, both can be terribly unforgiving of even the slightest inattention.” — David Boies

Until next month (who knows what that is going to look like!), be mindful and take the long view. This too shall pass. 

Stay in touch. I would love to hear from you.

 

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #4


March is always a great month for me. 
Regardless of the weather, I feel a sense of victory on March 1st -- despite knowing that old man winter hasn't yet called it quits. My triumph was certainly tested last year. In late April, our flight from Charleston was diverted to Milwaukee because O’Hare was snowed in! 
But, I can see and feel the coming light.
March is also great for me because I can start running outside again. I thought about getting a treadmill this year but I hate the rat wheel. I have been able to get out most weeks this winter, but now I plan to step it up as the earth thaws. I feel blessed when the path is under my feet.

Walking 

Speaking of the path, I just finished a beautiful book called, Walking: One Step at a Time, by the Norweigan lawyer, and explorer, Erling Kagge. Kagge weaves philosophy, science, and literature to depict the peace and contentment found by taking a walk. As Kagge observes, “This is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot, life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it.”  Slow down to get further. 

I already knew of the many accomplished thinkers who formed their ideas while walking: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Thoreau, Beethoven, and Jefferson to name a few. This book cemented it for me. As lawyers, we all benefit from slowing down, and I urge everyone to join me in clearing their heads by moving their feet. 

There is one other quote from the book I want to share: 

"The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, already had a grasp of the truth 2,400 years ago. He warned against being incorrectly medicated and emphasized that no medication could have such a broad effect as simply putting one foot in front of the other. 'Walking is man's best medicine.' I believe that walking has played a much more meaningful role in human health than all of the medicines that have been consumed throughout history." 

This is the type of simple wisdom dispensed on every page of this book. 

The older I get the more I realize that it is the simple things, like walking, that makes us happy and healthy. 

"Simple ain't easy."

This is a quote from jazz great Thelonius Monk. I think about it often. How do we, as legal advocates, simplify our arguments to make them more effective? Great arguments are clear and straightforward. Convoluted arguments may sound impressive, but the rhetoric is often empty. Distinguished thinkers convey their points simply, directly and understandably.

Take Lincoln, for example. As I referenced in a recent blog post, Lincoln summed up the essence of America in his Gettysburg Address in just 271 words. His training as a trial lawyer honed this skill. 

Retired Judge and Lincoln scholar, Ronald Spears, wrote an interesting article in the Illinois Bar Journal last month: Lincoln, Explainer of Things. Judge Spears notes that Lincoln described his advocacy technique as, “calm persuasion, a demonstration not of oratorical powers, but of succinct expression in service of the truth.” 

Judge Spears describes Mr. Lincoln’s technique:  Lincoln used, “common language, stories, demonstrative exhibits and illustrations to make information understandable and usable.” As trial lawyers our job is to tell the story effectively, It is not to show off our impressive vocabulary or personal knowledge. 

Again, Spears on Lincoln, “His goal was not to impress people with his intellect but to humbly make needed information intelligible.”  When planning any presentation, channel your inner Lincoln. Choose concrete language. Use metaphors or analogies to help explain complex facts. Speak slowly and plainly. Employ demonstrative aids when necessary to convey the message. Make the argument an interesting and compelling story. 

While simple ain’t easy, it is achievable if you take the time to trim the fat and find the essence of the case. Then determine the best way to convey your ideas clearly and concisely.

Advocacy Advice:

To make an effective argument to the court, "simplify, summarize and synthesize."— Justice Samuel Alito

re: David Boies, "he choreographed the facts in such a way that there was no need for overblown rhetoric or slogans, the common tools of the trial lawyer. He was a seductive conversationalist…"Karen Donovan

"You will find hundreds of persons able to provide a crowd of good ideas upon any subject for one who can marshal them to best advantage."John Quincy Adams

Influential Book Poll

Last month I solicited from my friends’ books that changed their lives. Here is a sampling:

From coach extraordinaire (I am biased, she has repeatedly saved my sanity!) Cindy Rold - Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by the great Judy Blume

From divorce trial lawyer and former Zen monk Michael Roe (an interesting combo) - Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

From my friend and Chair of the Publication Board for the ABA Family Law Section, Lynne Ustach - A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

From Austin’s top gun divorce lawyer (and one of my long time Atticus friends) Janet McCullar - Little Women

Thanks, everybody for sharing your recommendations! Readers are leaders. 

Well, that’s it for this month. Get outside and hit the trail or the pavement! 

Stay in touch.

From the Desk of Steven N. Peskind

Monthly Memo #3


I am writing this post from my patio in the Turks and Caicos.
Beautiful white sand beaches and warm breezes make this place delightful.
Time to recharge. 

The Laws of Human Nature

While on vacation, I am reading Robert Greene’s tome, The Laws of Human Nature. The book is not exactly light beach reading but it is entertaining and informative. Using historical and literary references, Greene explores human conduct and motivation. Throughout, Greene emphasizes the importance of lucid thinking.  I recently wrote on the subject of becoming a better thinker in Improve Your Thinking: Write. Lawyers should actively develop ways to think better. I hope you check it out. Writing is the best way to think better. Greene is a terrific tour guide on this important subject.

Generations

Greene is the mentor of Ryan Holiday, a 30 something genius whose books I love. I am currently taking Holiday’s 13-day course, Read to Lead, a tutorial on enhancing one’s reading. I find it interesting and ironic how much I am learning from Millennial thinkers like Holiday. Having older teachers seems natural to me, and I consider it counterintuitive to learn from teachers the ages of my kids. But I’ll take the good stuff wherever I can find it. I think the cross-fertilization of ideas between generations is good for everyone.

Speaking of generations, I stumbled across these two articles which, respectively, speak to those of my generation and those starting their careers. For the “newbies," check out this wise and funny article by Stephen Easton called, My Last Lecture: Unsolicited Advice For Future and Current Lawyer. I love the common sense and wisdom from a lawyer in the sunset of his career. One bit of advice he advocates is simple and obvious: return your damn phone calls!

For those who are later in their career, read Arthur Brooks eye-opening article, Your Work Peak Is Earlier Than You Think. As Brooks observes (gulp), "The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely.” That said, I watched Alan Dershowitz, aged 80, give a very respectable (although in my opinion flawed) presentation to the Senate on Constitutional history at the impeachment trial. 

Nearing 60, I still feel like I am at the top of my game but I am aware that the sand is starting to drain more quickly in the hourglass. As a result, I am making changes to my practice to exploit my current strengths (wisdom and judgment) and compensate for my weakness (inability to work 12 hour days anymore).

Whether young or old, we all need to heed the advice of the Stoics who practiced Momento Mori, a regular reflection on one’s mortality. We must constantly remember that our lives are finite. Use your limited time wisely.

Advocacy Advice:

Never waste valuable time, or mental peace of mind, on the affairs of others—that is too high a price to pay.” — Robert Greene

The biggest adversary in our lives is ourselves. We are what we are, in a sense, because of the dominating thoughts we allow to gather in our head. All concepts of self-improvement, all actions, and paths we take relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves. Life is limited only by how we really see ourselves and feel about our being. A great deal of pure self-knowledge and inner understanding allows us to lay an all-important foundation for the structure of our life from which we can perceive and take the right avenues.” — Bruce Lee

Arguing to hear one's own wonderful voice: I know people who use argument merely to hear their own voices. They are noisemakers. These people seem perfectly secure, but they are enchanted with their words, enthralled with their own wisdom, and they are, to be sure, as boring as popcorn without salt. They have, during the course of their lives, made so much noise and filled the air with so much authoritative banality that they have had no time to form an original thought, nor have they given themselves the opportunity to hear and learn anything from listening to anyone else.” — Gerry Spence

What book changed your life?

On day six of my reading challenge, Ryan Holiday suggests asking people you admire what book or books changed their lives. So I am asking. For me, it is Stephen B. Oates great Lincoln biography, With Malice Toward None. This book helped me realize and truly appreciate the greatness of Lincoln. The other book is a short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery. I first read this story in 7th grade and it blew my 13-year-old mind! It was my introduction to a lifelong love of literature.

What books changed your life? I’m sure our tribe has a varied range of favorites. I will post them in the March newsletter (If you want to comment but remain anonymous, just let me know). Email your titles and comments to me at snpeskind@gmail.com. 

By the way, my solicitation last month for a virtual book club using a Zoom platform only drew two responses. I think we will need to table that idea for a while. I will revisit the idea later this year.

In the meantime, keep reading, writing and thinking! 

Stay in touch.

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