The Lawyer’s Compass Series: The D.E.V.I.L. is in the Details

 In Great Strides and Small Steps, Redefining a Successful Lawyer, The Lawyer's Compass

I was recently having dinner with a group of friends and family, I asked them if they had a positive or negative association with the phrase “The devil is in the details”. Three said negative and two saw it neutrally.

I’ve been bedeviled by this phrase for a number of years. I have always thought of it as a warning to pay attention or something bad might happen – why else would the word “devil” be used? It was only recently that I finally saw it not as a warning, but as advice on how to live a rewarding life.

While working at my dad’s law firm in middle school and high school, my grandpa Jim was the office investigator. In the late 1930’s, he was the youngest chief of police in Walla Walla, Washington. In 1940, he was part of secret service protecting FDR during World War 2.

Detail and dogged determination were his calling cards. Whether he was investigating a murder, keeping the President safe or asking a witness questions, it’s the nitty-gritty that he was after. The same is true whether we are being the best lawyer we can or living our best life.

One of the worst feelings I can have as an attorney is when my client is being questioned at a deposition or crossed examined on facts I did not know. That sinking feeling starts to creep over me that the other side found something that I missed. And now my client’s credibility is going to be attacked because I did not find an important event in the medical history.

While I can’t always know every fact, it’s cold comfort when it’s used against my client. Have you experienced that sensation? It’s not fun.

When I don’t pay enough attention to the details right from the start is where the seeds of a potential problem are planted. Sometimes it’s several years down the line that I run straight into it. This holds true in my personal and professional life. When I don’t pay attention to those little intuitive nudges they become warnings. When I ignore the warnings because I don’t have time or I’m concerned about what might happen if I said or did something, I’ve set myself up for potentially graver consequences.

I decided recently that the word “devil” in this phrase stands for Depth Elevates Vitalizes and Informs Life. Just like my grandpa Jim, the more I dig into the elements that make up my true self, the better I’m able to live a deeply rewarding life. The less I know is like going to trial with half the facts.

My blog post Low and Slow talks about how life is not about just going deep. It’s a balance of enjoying skimming across the surface of the water and also plumbing the depths of a subject. The problem is there seems to be an abundance of time for skimming and little time and circumstances to get down into the nitty-gritty.

Like all of us, I work hard every day to be as productive and efficient as possible. With my head down at my desk working hard for my clients, I can become oblivious to what’s going on inside of me. If I don’t take the time to pull out of this mode of operating, I’m going to find less success and deep personal satisfaction in my internal life, which affects me both at the office and at home.

My wife and I took a two-week driving vacation last summer down to San Diego. It was the first time the two of us had been on an extended vacation without kids or friends in 15 years. Being together without anyone else for two weeks allowed us to dig deeper than we ever would have at home. It made me realize how important this time is, not just to have fun, but also to live a maximum rewarding life.

Where do you find the Low and Slow times for diving deep into the details, whether alone or with another? It’s only by making the time that we get to the d.e.v.i.l.ish nitty-gritty and the intangible rewards that are the internal markers of living a fulfilled life.

When we explore and deal with the deep and detailed truths about who we are and what we can become, we will experience greater meaning and success than we ever thought possible.

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