Taking Professionalism to New Heights–Mountaineering Lessons for the Practice of Law: Part 2

by Tali Thomason on March 18, 2016

By Guest Blogger: Steve Sieberson

Editor’s Note: In our previous issue the author introduced Part 1 by noting the similarities between mountain climbing and practicing law, and how lessons learned in alpine recreation can apply as well to lawyers. The topics were (1) Plan for Your Success, (2) Equip Yourself for the Task Ahead, and (3) Form a Team.

  1. Manage the Risks
  • Stay alert and recognize the warning signs. When travelling to a new city or country you are often advised to “be aware of your surroundings.” Hikers and climbers should be alert to whether they need water or carbs, and whether their feet are developing any “hot spots” – the sign of an imminent blister. They should also be aware of their environment. A lens-shaped lenticular cloud appearing suddenly over a nearby summit foretells unstable weather. Falling air pressure means a storm is on the way.

There are warning signs for lawyers as well. When your inbox fills up, when clients, colleagues, or opposing counsel send you repeated requests for information or documents, when you fall behind in your time sheets, it’s clear that trouble is brewing. When you see these things happening to one of your colleagues, ask yourself if he or she might be struggling with substance abuse or psychological problems. Whether it’s about you or a co-worker, consider calling the WSBA Lawyers Assistance Program.


  • Know when to turn back. There are times when you have to abandon a climb. Deteriorating weather, illness, injury – there are many reasons to call it a day. It is said, “There are old climbers and bold climbers, but no old, bold climbers.”

As a lawyer you can’t win every argument or negotiating point, and sometimes you will lose your case or see your transaction fall apart. You are willing to go to the mat, but you owe it to your client to explain when it may be the best course of action to concede or settle. Topps doesn’t issue lawyer cards with your photo on the front and your lifetime statistics on the back. Success in a legal career can be defined in many different ways.

  • When disaster happens, do your best. Everybody who climbs has been involved in difficult situations, and some of us have witnessed tragedies. We train in first aid and rescue techniques, yet in the face of an accident we feel inadequate. I have learned that under the pressure of an awful event, you need to take a deep breath, clear your head, and set definable tasks for yourself and your teammates. Do what is manageable, and don’t berate yourself for lacking super powers.

Every lawyer will experience some failure, and a few of us will be involved in a true disaster, such as the collapse of a law firm. As in a mountain incident, it does no good to blame yourself for not being able to fix everything. Rather, maintain your professionalism, do what you can under the circumstances, and get on with your career. Seek professional help from the WSBA Lawyers Assistance Program, colleagues in the bar, or other advisors. They can help you maintain your perspective and set a strategy for going forward. Hard as it may seem at the time, today’s failure can make you stronger for tomorrow.

  1. Rise to the Challenge
  • Accept the fact that it’s mostly plodding. Most mountain photos are taken at the summit, showing big smiles and raised fists. But take it in perspective: In a one- or two-day climb, maybe twenty minutes are spent on top. The rest consists of long approaches under heavy packs, coiling and recoiling rope, and generally trudging along. It’s a lot of effort, and the overall character of a mountain outing is not ecstasy, but patience and discipline.

Legal programs on television leap from one dramatic moment to the next – an intense confrontation during an interrogation, the zinger question on cross-examination, the reading of the verdict. True life for lawyers is simply not a highlight reel. You must deal with hours, days, and weeks of grinding it out. At least it can be said that law school prepares you for this life.

  • To stay in balance, keep moving. In climbing we speak of a “dynamic move” in which you pass over a nub of rock or bit of ice that won’t support you for more than a second. You can’t stop there, so you flow through to something more substantial. In such a situation, staying in balance means staying in motion.

Lawyers get stuck sometimes. It may be because they are on unfamiliar ground (a daily occurrence for new lawyers), because they are over-thinking a problem, or as a result of outside stresses. In any event, a bout of uncertainty is a normal human condition that need not stop you in your tracks. You can use your anxieties to spur yourself onward and even to improve your performance, but you must keep moving.


  • When it’s time to take a leap, go for it. On rock, you can lunge for that handhold that is just out of reach, as long as you think it through and set protection to limit your fall if you miss your target. Caldwell and Jorgeson fell many times, reconnected with the rock, and tried again. The crux of their ascent proved to be a few critical leaps to miniscule finger holds, but they had trained and had the courage to go for it.

There are no guarantees of success in law practice. There will be times when you have to roll the dice and hope for sevens. Be sure to consult with your client before doing so, and then let loose. If legal affairs were totally mechanical and totally predictable, there would be no need for lawyers. LegalZoom would cover everything.

  1. Take Joy in What You Do
  • Don’t complain . . . ever. Mountain climbing is strenuous, but you have chosen to do it, and you should never complain. If you need to adjust your socks or your pack straps, just say so and then do it. No need to grumble. I have a pretty strict rule about this: I will climb with a whiner only once and never again.

Every lawyer has a heavy workload and receives insufficient praise, so why complain about it? To be sure, if you suffer harassment or discrimination, you should speak out and seek redress, but on ordinary things do you want to be known as a person who is never happy? Some squeaky wheels seem to get greased, but everyone remembers the squeaking.

  • Lighten up once in a while. Even though mountaineering is an avocation for most climbers, it is serious business, and it can wear us down. We need a bit of levity now and then. I once saw a photo of some people who carried a keg of Coors to the top of one of Colorado’s Fourteeners, and I regret that I was not on that summit that afternoon. It’s great when climbers wear something loud or zany – I used to put on a summit necktie; why not a tutu?


If ever there was a profession that should have Mandatory Continuing Recreation, it is the practice of law. We need other things in our lives. Yoga is wonderful, but so are child-raising, making music, and acts of charity. Tennis anyone? Choose what you will, but do it regularly, or your legal career will consume you. Also, is there a rule that says lawyers can’t have a little flair? I’m not impressed by a Lexus, but how about some argyle socks, a pocket square, chandelier earrings, or five-inch heels?

  • Enjoy the summit, a job well done. Those of us who climb mountains do so because we can’t imagine not doing it. We are drawn to the fresh air, the breathtaking scenery, and things we can’t even articulate. We take satisfaction in doing something difficult. We are grateful for our teammates. We revel in reaching the summit, and even more in making it back home at the end of the day. Climbing brings us joy.

As lawyers we are called to the bar and commissioned to play a vital role in ordering society. We have the honor of being entrusted with our clients’ most difficult problems and helping them achieve their dreams. We are privileged to do what we do. We have so much to celebrate.

If I have spent more time lawyering than climbing, it is because I know which of the two is more important. But I am glad that I have done both.


steveAbout the author: Steve Sieberson, a WSBA member since 1975, practiced law in Seattle for 25 years before becoming Professor of Law at Creighton University in Omaha. A longtime climber, he is the author of an acclaimed and highly entertaining book, The Naked Mountaineer – Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (University of Nebraska Press). Steve’s webpage is www.stevesieberson.com, and he can be reached at stevesieberson@gmail.com.

This article was originally published in NW Lawyer, vol. 69 no. 6, September 2015—republished with permission.

Drawings © 1982. Illustrations by Bob Cram, reproduced from Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 4th edition, published by Mountaineers Books, Seattle. The book is known as “the bible of mountaineering instruction” and is currently in its eighth edition.


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