Lawyers Journal

Meaningful group endeavors

Never having wanted to work for anyone, I have spent my entire legal career in private practice in a relatively small firm setting. Doing so has allowed me some freedom to answer mostly to myself and my clients, hastening to observe that I have to answer to my colleagues at my firm as well. But law firms of whatever size are still group endeavors and, to work well, have to have some glue other than economics to hold the individuals in the firm together.

The late, delightful and insightful author, Kurt Vonnegut, published the novel Cat's Cradle in 1963 when I was finishing high school. Having read the novel when it first was available and having revisited it a few times since, I remain struck by its instructive window into human behavior. Vonnegut coined the terms "karass" and "granfalloon" in that novel. To paraphrase Vonnegut, his fictional karass is a group of people collectively doing good things, carrying out specific, common tasks. A granfalloon, on the other hand, is a false karass - a group of people gathered together based upon a fabricated premise.

Thelonious Monk, the great jazz pianist and composer, was thought by many not to have good technique on the piano. His very individualistic attack style at the piano did seem at times like a butcher hacking away at a large slab of beef. Yet Monk's technique was considerable, rooted in not just his innate talent but also his early training in classical piano. As a child in New York City, Monk had not been taking lessons very long before his piano teacher told Monk's mother there was nothing more that piano teacher could teach him. If you listen to early Monk recordings, you will hear a lyrical, classical style very different from the percussive dissonance in later recordings, which are more familiar to most listeners.

Thelonious Monk became legendary at an early age. A significant part of his life included regularly inviting other musicians to his apartment for late night jam sessions. These sessions became rites of passage for young musicians attempting to establish themselves in the New York jazz scene. An invitation from Monk signified you had arrived. With Monk always composing and improvising on the fly, the musicians who could keep up with him quickly established themselves as serious players. At these chaotic sessions the musicians' efforts often gave new meaning to the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. From that chaos, Monk and the group of players he nurtured through these late night sessions became a karass.

A false karass, a granfalloon, is like the following. If people say to me they are from Buffalo, I can say, "I'm from Buffalo, too." Those Buffalonians can respond, "Nobody has to be ashamed of being from Buffalo," and I can rejoin, "I never knew anyone who was." Think of a granfalloon, in Vonnegut's words, as "a proud and meaningless association of human beings."

Professional associations, like the MBA, are like Vonnegut's karass. We gather together as individuals and commit to work collectively to do good things, carrying out common, specific objectives, whether they be advocacy for adequate funding for our court system, equal access to justice, or promoting professionalism through ongoing education and adherence to ethical standards.

Some of our collective tasks and objectives are grand, some mundane. Sometimes things seem chaotic. In all instances, by working together, the tasks and objectives are more likely to be accomplished. I believe that is the essence of why active involvement in the MBA is valuable to you, as individuals. You can contribute your individual talents to do good things working collectively and collaboratively with other like-minded individuals.

Unlike Vonnegut's granfalloon, there is nothing fabricated or false about the work of the MBA. The MBA, through its volunteer leaders, members, and staff, deals with substantial, important issues every day. Join us in that endeavor. You can and will make a difference. You will derive considerable satisfaction and tangible benefits as well. You will be part of a true karass.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association