The law of the letter: A simple act of kindness can change someone’s life

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 20, 2018

Over the last several years, our firm has written nearly 200 “On the Way to the Courthouse” pieces, which are reflections of partner, Mike Wells. Many of them are published in various state and local publications as well, including the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, the Winston-Salem Journal, the North Carolina State Bar Quarterly and the Clemmons Courier. Selections of them have also been recorded for the Winston-Salem affiliate of National Public Radio and for the North Carolina National Public Radio network.

The piece below tells a story I related in part to you some time ago (but without Charles Dickens’ special insights from “A Christmas Carol”), which may help you as it has helped me to be in search of the deep source of kindness we all possess. I had so many (unanticipated) personal comments. It was published in regional and statewide venues as well, and it received a similar response. Of all the experiences I have related over the years in these Courthouse pieces, only two others have struck such a chord. So I offer it again since we find ourselves in this season of kindness. And we should not miss any of its not-always-so apparent offerings.

In this time of deals and discounts, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all manner of gifts we can buy for others, this is one we can all give from the heart. And in the hustle and bustle of the season, it is right in front of us, every day. Hidden, but waiting to be found.

Finding the peace of the season in the law of the letter

It was just a letter, after all. But I came to see I had it all wrong.

As a young lawyer, I got a call years ago from an older gentleman. He had a problem with a bill he had received. He was shaken that he was getting past-due letters.

I wrote a letter as a courtesy to the service provider to straighten out the facts, and it worked.

A quick conference and quick letter carried the day, and that was that. I brought no special lawyer skill or talent to the task. Just my time, and my everyday sorting-out-the-facts experience that most everyone reading this possesses. The successful result would not get this matter spotlighted in N.C. Lawyers Weekly, but I came to see its success was of a different kind.

My initial too-narrow view of the value of the letter changed quickly. I received in rapid order a heartfelt voicemail message from the older gentleman, another voicemail message from his only child in Richmond expressing deep thanks for helping his growing-more-disoriented widowed dad, and a following letter from the older gentleman himself in his shaky handwriting. His worry touched a tap root of one of his bedrock Great Depression values: you pay your bills, and on time.

I never saw my pro-bono client again. But I held on to his emotional letter of gratitude for many years. When I braved to clean out my desk’s center drawer I would read it again. It served to remind me of the charge, even on my very busy swirling days, to find and give out the special currency of kindness I carried with me, much like the idle pocket change I take home at the end of the day, unused. And to appreciate again the power of what I had for so long mistakenly viewed as an ordinary thing.

Many of life’s problems touch on the law but they do not require the practice of law to solve. The solutions are often less about the letter of the law — knowing every little thing about every little part — than about the law of the letter: simply taking the time to offer your problem-solving experience as a calibrator of facts and options when you allow another’s real-life dilemma to catch your eye. And you do not have to be a lawyer to do that.

Most any one of us on behalf of another can make a quick call, send a short note, nudge another person to make a matter right, or identify a key resource which can provide needed direction. You do not have to be part of a learned profession to offer your time and a little common sense to help someone solve a problem.

In the beloved Dickens story, “A Christmas Carol,” the Spirit helps Scrooge encounter in a metaphorical vision two of life’s pressing needs, ignorance and want, which helps Scrooge see beyond the limits of his own narrow view of tangible things to the intangible value of kindness.

Your time and thinking-through skills can take many people beyond the reach of what they don’t know (ignorance) to solving what may seem to you is a small problem but which in fact lifts a large worry. In the process you help another find a path to chip away at both of the pressing needs Dickens helps us see in his timeless story. And in this season of peace, the peace we all seek is sometimes sweetly measured out by simply helping another find peace of mind.

The law of the letter is about the currency of kindness we all possess in abundance, whether we are lawyers or laymen. Never underestimate its power, nor carry it around unused. Get it to the street, no matter how ordinary the problem may seem to be.  Your skills and ability to see and solve so many challenges other citizens face are greater than you realize, as I came to see more clearly so many years ago. And my, my, my, the good you can do.

Happy Holidays to you and your family. How grateful we all should be.

Mike Wells is an attorney with Wells Law in Winston-Salem.