It is a well-known fact that lawyers have a reputation for being unlikable. Look to any comic about attorneys, you will find sharks or grim white men in business suits representing “our kind.” There is a simple reason the general public views lawyers as cold blooded – law students are trained to leave their emotions at the door, and unfortunately, some lawyer forgot to pick them back up with their J.D.
The first year of law school is equal parts education and indoctrination. The message is clear: drop your feelings off with your tuition check. Young lawyers-to-be are trained to be issue spotters. They teach us quickly that your affection for a sympathetic client will only cloud your judgment. As your client’s advocate, the way that you help the most is to quickly spot the legal issues, present the potential pitfalls and explore the possibilities. A good attorney is direct with the client, because the only thing worse than hearing you do not have a case, is wasting thousands of dollars, years of your life, and spending more time with attorneys – than any non-lawyer in their right mind would ever choose – because you litigated and lost. In the end, capability outweighs likability, and attorneys are just generally accepted as being curt or even rude.
On my first day as a summer intern at Robbins & Curtin, I sat in Joel Robbins’office. He was going to give me an overview on all the firm’s cases, and it was our first interaction since he interviewed me for the position weeks prior. Joel is an exuberant person, though he seemed relaxed speaking to me from a semi-reclined position in his chair. “Before I tell you anything about these cases, I want to tell you a bit about our practice. There are real people involved in each of these cases, people and their families, who come to us for help. These people have suffered and we take that very seriously. We go to bat for them, and we are not afraid to stand up for what’s fair and right. We may lose but we don’t stop. I’m not afraid to fail; I think it’s an important part of growing, learning, getting better. You fail, you pick yourself back up, and you come at it another way. You never stop getting up. That is what we do. And it is our privilege to represent these clients and their families.”
Was this guy for real, I wondered? Did a lawyer just say that representing his clients was a privilege? I had never heard it put that way. An honor… maybe I’d heard that. A pain in the ass… I’d certainly heard that. But until this day, I equated any emotional connection with a client to be a weakness. Attorneys should spot the issues, advocate, and distance themselves from the client so they do not lose sight of the legal argument while giving way to sentiment. Now this guy is telling me that empathy and compassion are not only essential to the practice of law, but acknowledging emotions can help you win.
In my experience, I have seen lawyers with no interest in connecting with their clients beyond a factual and financial basis. In the beginning, I’ll admit I could not always discern between an attorney’s commitment to a client and his desire to win. I have seen my fair share of sensationalism in motions and expert reports. This can happen when a case loses its human element, and the attorneys focus more on the competition with each other than the people experiencing the litigation. The attorney wants to win for his client, but what is a win for the client, is sometimes not a win for the lawyer.
John Curtin explained it to me like this: Sometimes the drive to do this work – since it can’t be feeling all the time because if we felt it all we would die! – is competition. The trick is to keep the sense of competition but be ever willing to set the ego aside for the sake of the client. Sometimes the settlement I want for them, the settlement I know they deserve and that I could likely win for them – is not the settlement they want. No matter how much I want to beat opposing counsel, my priority is always to defer to my client.
So at the helm of my summer, I followed suit and dove in to the cases I was assigned. Theirs is a practice unlike any other I have ever seen; civil rights law is fascinating. I tried to take in everything. Like other firms I had worked in, they would first look at the facts of a case analytically. What happened? Next, they would look at the story and who was involved. Why did it happen? Usually by this point, a good attorney can make a judgment call on how to proceed. The next step surprised me. You have to explore the experience. How did the actors experience what happened? Once an attorney learns to do this, she develops the skill to connect with clients, a jury, even her adversary.
So how does one go about exploring their client’s experience? Why doesn’t every lawyer do this? You can’t just say, “I’m going to put myself in Mrs. Jones shoes,” you have to connect to Mrs. Jones. As I said before, the very training lawyers undergo to succeed in this profession can interfere with the ability to connect to others. The first step is meeting with the client and a willingness to talk at some length, to let the conversation sometimes move at their pace. A good attorney will have to make Mrs. Jones feel comfortable enough to share and then be capable of receiving the information she does share on some emotional level – not just analytically.
A good attorney is the voice of the victim’s families, the interpreter of people who cannot speak. The attorney will filter through the sensibility of the facts as they are seen, right now, and the way things were at the time the case at hand was actually happening. The talent is to be a sort of translator between the jury and the people involved in the case. The greater your sense of the language a jury will best understand, the easier it will be to advocate on behalf of your client.
I took away a lot of valuable experiences from my summer at Robbins & Curtin, but I always go back to that first meeting with Joel as the moment that changed what sort of attorney I was going to be. “Are we perfect?” he said, “No! But our response to mistakes must always be to try again, never stop, we are always learning.” Facts may be black and white but life is not made up of facts. Life is filled with people composed of shades of various emotions and motivations, drives and desires. Convey that information and you are one of the few advocating through making a connection. This type of lawyering can be a hard road to navigate, but it can be done. The sooner one is willing to accept his own imperfections so that he can continue to learn and advance, the easier it becomes to see beyond the imperfections of others and find a place where you can relate. Invite others to connect, that is how you advocate.