When I was still practicing law, I would occasionally serve clients who had once practiced law but had since moved on to other pursuits. These clients never failed to surprise me with a trait they displayed: to a man and woman, they no longer thought like lawyers. I’m not sure I can easily summarize what “thinking like a lawyer” is like, but it certainly includes being aware of the large interlocking body of rules that governs almost every transaction, knowing as well when politics really trumps the ostensible rules, reflexively remembering the costs of dispute resolution, staying wary of letting emotions substitute for logic, doggedly considering procedural hoops one must jump through to accomplish things, and habitually shunning incautious action. Whatever fine implements these former lawyers of whom I speak may have added to their mental toolkits after leaving the active bar, with disuse their “thinking like a lawyer” tools invariably rusted quickly.
With retirement, it is now about 16 months since I made my own last efforts to advise or represent clients. I still have frequent reasons to be in the office, and I still enjoy my contacts with my old firm, and also with my old colleagues throughout the profession. But I can already sense my own mental tools rusting up.
I pick up a professional journal, and already can see issues and developments mentioned (e.g., blockchain document authentication) that I do not grasp in the depth I would have not so long ago. And even when I understand the general outlines of something (the extreme rightward tilt of the Supreme Court, for example), I may realize that I have read none of the most recent cases. I have taken to scanning the headlines and moving on, but the consequence is that I do not understand many developments at the level of detail I would once have insisted on for myself. It’s not that I couldn’t still do it; I could. But I now am focusing on other things and neither want nor need the distraction of the effort to remain current.
This transition, I find, has affected not just the parts of my mind I formerly relied on to practice law, but also some of the parts that helped me write this column, which has from the first been dedicated to the interface of law and policy.
The big legal and policy issues of our day increasingly rotate around a single man, and the coverage of that man and his activities one way or another implicating law and policy have drawn enormous amounts of very well-informed and thoughtful analysis from full-time participants in a 24/7 commentariat. This creates a different media environment from the one in which this column started. A columnist addressing the law and policy issues on a monthly basis, in a 1,000-word column that may not come out promptly even after it is submitted, is engaged in a competition for originality and depth and currency he is sure to lose. And in my case this doomed competition has recently been waged at a moment when my attention was being drawn away from the “law” piece of the “law and policy” dyad in any case.
More than that, I and my various editors over the years have always tried to avoid making the column too political. But I’m finding it increasingly urgent at this moment to be political. An opinion columnist is not required to hew to the kind of objectivity that a reporter is. But in a business-oriented newspaper, opinion columnists had better steer clear of partisanship. And I’ve reached a point where the effort to avoid partisanship has grown too exhausting for me. Right now, in my view, we need a healthy dose of it to keep our dialogue sane. Or at least I do.
So I’m going to put this column on hiatus. There may come an issue from time to time that fits this column’s parameters that I may find irresistible to write about, and, if so, I’ll certainly submit it for consideration. And there may come a time when the maelstrom of coverage centered on one individual’s effort to rewrite our laws and our policies, together with our political conventions and what many consider to be our Constitution itself, dies down. At that point, there may again be breathing space for a column such as mine.
But for the time being, I am taking my cue from the poet John Milton, who concluded an elegy by looking ahead: “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” Like the poet, I have other things to do and other things to write. And it is time to get down to them.
I am enormously grateful to The Daily Record and to my stellar editors over the years for the space and the freedom they have afforded me, and to my readers, so many of whom have shared their reactions with me. And from that gratitude I do not exclude the readers who quite frequently prefaced their comments with the remark that they didn’t agree with me much but enjoyed reading me anyway. I never needed agreement, just engagement, and that I never doubted I was receiving. It has been a pleasure and an honor to command that engagement for a long time. But now it is time to move on.
Bing Crosby once sang (with an assist from Louis Armstrong): “On my door I’d hang a sign: Gone Fishin’ instead of just a-wishin.’” Amen.
Jack L.B. Gohn is partner emeritus with Gohn Hankey & Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.