Disgraced Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong famously wrote, “It’s Not About the Bike.”
OK, OK, it wasn’t — I get it; it was more about the EPO. But to borrow nonetheless from Armstrong, it’s not about the courtroom. Not always, anyway. While the courtroom certainly matters, it’s only part of the equation. And as many times as not, it is the least of it.
Although a bravura courtroom performance certainly counts, what most times wins the day are simple (or perhaps not so simple) thought, planning and preparedness. In that way, “good law” is not so different than good anything else. Ask Michael Jordan how many hours he put in aiming at the hoop or Peyton Manning how much mud he’s packed under his cleats. Effort in, success out.
A friend of mine — an older and successful lawyer in the Denver area — and I were walking to lunch many years ago during a break in a mediation in which we both were involved. Since his name is Al, let’s, for convenience, call him “Al.” Al said to me, apropos of nothing in particular, “I had a partner once who billed for ‘thinking about’ a matter.”
We had a laugh.
Now, you have to understand, that most times, anyway, how a lawyer bills — and how he’s paid — is for “doing” something rather than “thinking about” something, be it drafting briefs, writing correspondence, jawboning with opposing counseling or appearing before the court. But “thinking about the matter”? Good luck explaining that!
But then I got to thinking, so I said to Al, “That’s really the most important thing we do though, isn’t it?”
Al said, “I do my best thinking in the shower or on a jog, or when I first wake up in the morning after wrestling with something in my sleep.”
“Been there,” I thought, “done that.”
I couldn’t count the number of times I’d waged war within myself over the best way to approach a client’s matter when half way up Vail Pass huffing on my bike or after a particularly fitful night of trying this or that on in my sleep. So, being older and presumably wiser, I asked Al, “Why is that? What’s wrong with billing a client for burning up brain cells over the client’s matter?”
Al answered with a shrug. He was too old a salmon to swim upstream; it was the way it was because it was the way it was.
I have seen “performers” — the courtroom equivalents of veritable Lawrence Oliviers — fall flat on their faces in a courtroom for lack of preparation.
Once, a well-known Denver lawyer was opposite me in an arbitration in Denver. His associates (young’un lawyers) had apparently prepared the case for him as his role was simply to “present” it. He relied on wile and his reputation. The only problem was, he couldn’t keep his facts straight. In fact, he kept forgetting, and then mispronouncing, his own client’s name. To say the least, the lawyer’s reputation notwithstanding, the judge was not impressed.
On the flip side, I have seen plodding, uninspired deliveries where, notwithstanding their bland-as-drying-paint deliveries, workmanlike lawyers have hit every point.
Preparation. Deliberation. Minimal lawyerly hubris. And, thinking about the matter. In fact, thinking long and hard and not being satisfied with “almost” or “good enough.”
Young or wannabe lawyers sometimes ask me, “What does it take to be a successful lawyer?”
My answer has become rote: “Return phone calls the day you get them. Do what you say you’re going to do. Do what you say you’re going to do on time. If you can’t get something done when you said it would be done, then let the client know, let the client know why it won’t be done when you said it would be done, and let the client know when it will be done instead. Communicate; clients most times come to you because they’re worried about something or because something is important enough to them to hire an attorney. Do your homework. Be prepared. Listen. Never, never, never miss a deadline. Think deeply and think often.”
“What,” I’m sometimes asked, “about being brilliant?”
“That’s a bonus. Like in any other calling. Customer service matters first and second. If you’re brilliant, good for you and good for your client.” Here I share a poignant look. “I’ve seen diligent and conscientious hand ‘brilliant’ its lunch.”
And here’s a little inside scoop. The more a lawyer puts in, the more that he/she gets out. You can up your “brilliant quotient” by simply studying the law, studying other successful lawyers and by studying history and human nature. After all, every legal matter — with no exception I can think of — is a story about people. Instead of quarks, it’s quirks. Instead of nuclear fission, it’s more like human frisson. Every lawsuit at its core is one of human interaction.
Oh, one last thing; lawyers are “counselors” at law rather than “combatants” at law or something equally inflammatory. While it is our charge to zealously represent a client, it is equally our charge to counsel, guide and at times, sympathize, commiserate and console. Sometimes, the most useful thing a lawyer can do is simply understand.
So back to Al. After we had finished lunch, he dragged a napkin over his lips and squared me in his eyes. “My partner was right, I suppose.”
You see, the good lawyer that he was, he had been thinking about it.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.