OCBA UPDATE: Achieving gravitas


I often hear the word “gravitas,” spoken either as an aspiration or a compliment. In our business, the definition of gravitas that seems to be accepted as is a successful combination of ability, experience, and a certain force of personality. Indeed, leadership coaches suggest that that it “...is not one trait alone, but a characteristic composed of many elements. It is demonstrated in how you carry yourself, act and show substance and character in all kinds of situations.” However, gravitas can become something that you want others to perceive,1 rather than a status you achieve through the way you live your life. Just as I have previously suggested with civility, we should all strive for gravitas. And for our young lawyers: You cannot achieve gravitas overnight (or on Facebook).

Researching the historical roots of gravitas, I consulted experts familiar with the ancient Roman history and language, which that I somehow avoided as a history major. I found a number of sources identifying a number of different virtues, and it appears that gravitas in its modern business sense is not necessarily as the Romans intended.2

Roman culture was both militaristic and male-oriented, and (with due respect to the female audience) many of the virtues ascribed to gravitas were associated with either “manliness” while on a military campaign or the civic duties required at home.3 That being said, the result of my search for gravitas seemed to suggest that gravitas was not necessarily a means but an end. Gravitas was achieved over time. It was viewed as a “quality.”

Professor Robert Kaster, Princeton University’s Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature, noted, that “[i]If you combined in your life all the vectors of excellence—performing manly deeds while serving the community in war and peace, maintaining your freely chosen commitments by displaying fides and the other associated virtues, and fulfilling the many obligations of reciprocity that bound you to the living, the dead, and the divine, all the while regulating your behavior by the promptings of ethical dispositions, such as verecundia4 and pudor5—then you can be said to embody three distinctively Roman qualities.”6 Professor Kaster’s three distinct qualities were gravitas,7 dignitas8 and auctoritas.9 In Kaster’s words, with those three qualities in hand, “[y]ou would, in short, be living the sort of life that all good men [and women] would want to live.” This combination, I think, is the gravitas we compliment in lawyers or seek to achieve ourselves.

Rather than viewing it as a virtue, we should see the modern gravitas as a result of living (and practicing law) “virtuously.”10 It is not something to acquire but something that comes naturally from handling yourself and your affairs the right way. For young lawyers beginning a career, I hope there are apt lessons that can be gleaned from observing those who have achieved gravitas, as these are the lawyers we generally respect most. They did it not with gray hair, stoic looks over the rims of reading glasses or even a brilliant cross-examination style. They did it via the right combination of “virtues” upon which to build a personal and professional reputation (and career).

It may seem like there are fewer and fewer opportunities to achieve gravitas. But here at the OCBA there are many opportunities to do so. Prospective members (and the board of directors) often discuss the “value proposition” of membership. And to them, I say there is real value in the opportunities that our organization offers to meet, learn, grow and build your reputation and career.11 In a profession where a reputation truly matters, you should not consider these merely “networking” opportunities. The OCBA is where reputations can be built. And if you do it well enough, it is where you can achieve gravitas.

1While a lawyer of a certain age or two has used a stoic or stern countenance as means of intimidation, this is not gravitas.

2To include: Auctoritas, Comitas, Clementia, Dignitas, Firmitas, Frugalitas, Gravitas, Honestas, Humanitas, Industria, Pietas, Prudentia, Salubritas, Severitas, and Veritas. There remains some dispute as to whether all of these constitute ancient virtues.

3“Roman Values and Virtues,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. M. Gagarin and E. Fantham, vol. 7 (New York: Oxford University Press 2010), pp. 148-57. The relevant excerpt is available at : https://scholar.princeton.edu/kaster/publications/values-and-virtues-romanhttps://scholar.princeton.edu/kaster/publications/values-and-virtues-roman.

4In essence, “knowing one’s place” in interpersonal relations and society.

5Interpreted generally as having a proper sense of shame or modesty.


7“...gravitas (‘weightiness’ = ‘seriousness’) ... that is you had both feet on the ground and were anchored securely in your world, reliably behaving in a consistent and well-balanced way...”

8“...an attribute signifying that you enjoyed a certain standing in the community...  ... and that you were judged worthy of that status.”

9“...the quality that caused others to receive your suggestions as though they were binding injunctions and allowed you to gain your aim just
because others were inclined to grant it.”

10Obviously, the modern world has evolved since the days of ancient Rome, and what is considered virtuous in the practice of law today is different than that in the days preceding the Caesars.

11For the young lawyer especially, you need to find opportunities to demonstrate your “virtuousness” in ways that gain the respect of the legal community. That necessarily requires that you be part of the community to be respected by it. Reputations in the practice of law are not built by social media. Rather, reputations are built by being personally present, active, and engaged.
Gerald J. Gleeson II, of Miller, Canfield, Paddock, & Stone PLC, is the 85th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.


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