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Doing the bit you can do

06 October 2017 - By Katie Cowan

I like to point out whenever I can that lawyers are also humans. Being human is the best reason I have found for encouraging people to really care for themselves in a less than ideal professional culture. It is also the best reason to care about the other humans and do what we can to improve all those other humans’ experience of life.

Most of the lawyers I have met, and especially the younger lawyers, want in some way to make the world better and improve it for others. And what a wonderful thing that is, since lawyers are an elite with on average more wealth, power and influence than the general population.

However, something I have seen and experienced painfully myself is the sense that one cannot do much while a junior lawyer, that one really has to wait until one is a partner or a judge or an MP to have any say. That message is disempowering and, honestly, a bit ridiculous.

I invite us to zoom out and consider the wider, systemic and structural injustices that are still part of our world, together with the power we have individually and collectively, to improve them.

The tool I offer to do this work is the idea of “doing the bit you can do”. DTBYCD, and its converse, Not Doing The Bit You Cannot Do give us power where perhaps we did not think we had it.

But first, a biology recap. Humans have survived like we have almost entirely because of our social cohesion. We have “succeeded”, evolutionarily-speaking, because despite significant weaknesses as individuals that made us vulnerable to predators and the elements, when we lived and acted as groups, we were anti-fragile. Biological forces like attachment and shame mean other people’s actions and simple perceptions of us can be very real comforts or very real threats. We are wired to care about others and to act in others’ interests, not just our own.

Complex things like culture systems take time (often decades) to change. They also rarely take single events or moments or people to change. What they take are many actions, big and small, by many people, in many places, over time. And that is what doing the bit that you can do is all about. Robert Kennedy said as much in a speech to the youth of South Africa in 1966:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”

So here’s how it works. When confronted with something you wish was different, you ask yourself what’s the bit you can do. The longer form of the question is, “What, given my age, expertise, resources, level of influence, mental capacity, skills and available time, is the bit that I can do?” The answer will generally present itself right away.

My point here is not that it is not also the work of those currently in leadership roles to do better and address the problems in the profession or in society. My point is just that we, the new (or new-ish) lawyers, do not have to wait until we sit in their seats to start doing the bits that we can do.

Sometimes the bit you can do is something big, like starting a project or running for office or taking up a governance role, thereby helping shape policy and practice in the direction you want it to go. Sometimes the bit you can do is volunteering your time or money to an organisation doing work you believe in. Sometimes the bit you can do is model the behaviour you wish was more prevalent in your organisation, like going home at 6pm, or question the policies for employment or career progression where you work. Sometimes the bit you can do is privately educating yourself on issues and experiences faced by people not like you; reading books or deliberately choosing TV and movies made by people who are not exclusively white and male if you are white and/or male, or seeking out the stories of beneficiaries or refugees.

But we are all busy with jobs and lives and families and obligations. So sometimes the bit you can do is simply calling out a sexist or racist joke as unacceptable or registering disapproval when groups are disproportionately male and/or white (speaking up against unjust group norms is like a culture-changing bomb we can let off anytime we like).

And then again, sometimes, the bit you can do is simply being kind to yourself and tending to your own needs. That is important work too; you will have greater capacity when you repeat the question to yourself at a later time.

There is a big caveat to the DTBYCD process: if your brain tries to tell you that the bit you can do is something that makes you feel upset or terrified or some other sense of threat, then that is probably not the bit you can do, yet, if at all. The bit you can do might be a smaller, gentler, version of that. Or it might be taking preparatory steps, like reading up on something, first. Or it might be something else entirely. Do not underestimate our brains’ ability to bully us about what we “should” do. I do not really care what you “should” do if that is not matched by what you can do. Shoulds in that context do not get us very far.

The beauty of DTBYCD is it both lets you off the hook and puts you on the hook, both in glorious ways.

How many systems and cultures and injustices around us would benefit from change, transformation, or discard? Pretty much all of them. For anyone wanting to make the world a better place, it can feel like too much, so you do nothing. Doing the bit that you can do is an antidote to overwhelm and all-or-nothing modes. You do not do more than you can do given time, resources, capacity, influence, but equally you do do something.

Take it from someone with a serious mental health issue who always wants to do more than her capacity will allow: the idea of doing the bit I can do (and equally not doing the bit I can’t do) has released me from the guilt of not doing more while increasing the number of things I actually do. What a happy paradox.

Our profession, like our society, is a joint undertaking; we are responsible for it together with all the other lawyer humans. Don’t let the size of the thing you want to change put you off doing a tiny thing in pursuit of it. You are not alone, you do not know who is watching and being influenced by your choices, and the collective tiny things of many people are more likely to bring about widespread and long lasting change anyway. If we all keep doing the bits that we can do, big and small, we do good by all the other humans and by ourselves. And it feels pretty great too.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is the founder and director of Symphony Law, and host of The New Lawyer Podcast (thenewlawyer.co.nz) for new and prospective lawyers with the aim of thinking in new ways about the practice and culture of law.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018