Wondering how to be a better lawyer? Be still. Chill out. Breathe and don’t pole vault over mouse turds. You can be a hero – an honest, ethical, and enlightened lawyer – while still billing hour after hour.
By James Gray Robinson, Consultant
I am a former family lawyer with 27 years of trial experience. I also spent a great deal of time volunteering with lawyers with addiction and substance abuse problems, as well as representing several lawyers in disbarment proceedings. Lawyers are often surprised when they read their local bar journals and find that their friends and colleagues have been disbarred for unethical behavior. I retired in 2004 to start a wellness and wholeness consulting business and realize that I have learned some things that would have really helped me if I had known them when I was practicing law.
I heard over and over that to be successful, a trial lawyer had to be the meanest junkyard dog in the valley. I could never be a junkyard dog although some of my colleagues would easily accuse me of being zealous in my practice. When I practiced family law, the junk-yard dogs seemed to be the people with the most lucrative practice. My father was a junk yard dog and one of the most successful lawyers in my home state. I was talking to a family lawyer the other day and she told me the most amazing experience she had ever had with an opposing attorney was when he told his client that the client’s quality of life would be much better if he didn’t engage in a scorched-earth policy with his ex-wife. Attorneys can be viewed as a compassionate bridge to solutions, or a junk yard dog.
Be the Best You Can Be
I believe that lawyers need to focus on one thing and one thing only, and that is being the best lawyer and counselor we can be and not focus on results. What other people think is irrelevant (pun intended). When you look for solutions and help your client move on, who cares what other people think? I realize that one of the hardest things to deal with (with your clients) is their misperception of what the legal system can do for them. You know, the ones that heard that “someone” got the ranch so they should be able to get the ranch, too. I went through a divorce that lasted six years for that very same reason; my ex-wife’s attorney could not persuade her to take the generous settlement that was being offered and as a result she got far less in the trial.
For lawyers to be this compassionate bridge to solutions, you have to be willing to be forthcoming and honest. Consider this head spinning idea; what would the judicial system be like if lawyers had to lay down their clients’ cards at the beginning instead of playing hide and go seek through discovery. I can remember having to repeatedly get judges to order the opposition to give my client information that was fair game for discovery. The gamesmanship was frustrating and counterproductive.
I am a big advocate of justice and I absolutely believe lawyers have a fiduciary duty to seek justice over winning. That is where the legal system has gotten sideways. For many attorneys, winning is more important than justice. However, there is more respect for the legal system when we are honest. I can remember many a conversation in the back rooms how a lawyer won because they tricked the opposition. The moral standard that attorneys committed to when they became lawyers has become murky. Lawyers need to be examples of morality and integrity, not examples of trickery.
No Short Cuts
Lawyers have to communicate what their clients want and not be afraid of being disrespected by being open and honest. The legal system has a specter over its shoulder that if your lawyer doesn’t outfox the opposition they are somehow bad lawyers. So lawyers keep their hands close to their chest and don’t tell because they feel it is their duty to outmaneuver their opponent. I have tried many cases that I felt weren’t winners but I felt like I had an ethical duty to my client to see it through. I question those decisions now. Lawyers have to balance their ethical obligations to their client with their ethical obligations to the legal profession, the public and the judicial system.
For God’s sake, no short cuts. Lawyers have to do their best. “Best” means being professionals in the highest sense of the word. Lawyers need to have compassion and empathy or justice is lost. It is not win at all costs anymore. I met a divorce lawyer recently that charges $1,000.00 per hour. Somehow the financial tail is wagging the professional dog.
Be still. Chill out. Breathe and don’t pole vault over mouse turds. Find your perspective and support group. Meditate. Find your bliss. You can do this while billing hour after hour.
When you do this, you will begin to find that the world in fact, needs more honest, ethical, and enlightened lawyers. Return to being the hero that you started out to be.
James Gray Robinson was a third generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. You can learn more about his work by visiting www.JamesGrayRobinson.com
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Tony in San Diego
Yah, this would be a great job, except for judges, opposing counsel, and clients!
Your article is quite helpful; you have answered many of my questions. We always strive to become better lawyers, and this is a great post about it.