Vail Daily column: The human side of law
Ryan Summerlin September 10, 2013
The nonfiction I am currently reading is titled “Confessions of a Sociopath.” The pseudonym is M.E. Thomas. The book, as you might have divined from the title is about living as a sociopath and what the view is like from inside looking out. That the author chose the pseudonym initials, “M.E.” says a lot about the book. You see, while the author details the typical characteristics of what defines a sociopath — including impulsiveness, risk-taking, the inability to learn from past mistakes, lack of empathy and so on — what it all comes down to, in the inner world of the sociopath, is “me ahead of you,” always and in all circumstances, without fail. In other words, “me first and you don’t really count.”
The book is fascinating in its way.
I should mention up front that, despite our presumption that, as a sociopath, the author must have penned the tome from Super Max or some such, the subtitle of the book speaks to the contrary. Its subtitle is “A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight”. Life aliens among us, the author claims that rather than a black-or-white phenomenon — either you are a sociopath or not — there are shades of gray and many — if not most sociopaths — rather than being criminals, are, in fact quite the opposite. The author postulates, in fact, that perhaps a disproportion of sociopaths rise to the top in business, medicine and law.
The author claims to be a lawyer and spouts off how well suited the characteristics of a sociopath are to industry, medicine (surgery, specifically), and law (particularly litigation). She claims a certain ruthlessness, detachment, win-at-all-costs attitude and black hole where empathy should live give the sociopathic practitioner a certain competitive advantage. She argues strongly that, in at least some areas of law, a sociopath will serve your interests better than what she calls an “empath.”
Noting that grandiosity is among the hallmarks of a sociopath, I respectfully disagree with the self-impressed author. Instead, I think the opposite is true. Rather than Frank Baum’s Tin Man in your corner — who, if you’ll think back, didn’t have a heart — I, for one, will take my chances with a lawyer who just plain cares.
Sociopath — or antisocial personality disorder — may be defined as 10 key characteristics. These include: not learning from experience, lacking a sense of responsibility, inability to form meaningful relationships, inability to control impulses, lack of moral sense, chronically antisocial behavior, failure to change in behavior after punishment, emotional immaturity, lack of guilt or remorse and extreme self-centeredness.
Sociopaths often exhibit criminal behavior. They may not work and, if they do work, they may be frequently absent or may suddenly quit. They do not consider other people’s wishes, welfare or rights. They can be extraordinarily manipulative and often lie to gain personal pleasure or profit. They may default on loans, fail to provide child support or fail to care for their dependents adequately. Sociopaths are known to engage in high-risk sexual behavior and substance abuse is common. Impulsiveness, failure to plan ahead, aggressiveness, irritability, irresponsibility and a reckless disregard for their own safety and the safety of others are traits of the antisocial personality.
Ah … no. I’ll take an Atticus Finch in the courtroom over Svengali.
The rules of professional conduct, by which all lawyers in this state are bound, provides that a lawyer’s first duty is to his or her client. Client over self, it seems to me, is the very antithesis of “me first and Katy bar the door!” A careful reading of the rules makes it clear that empathy with and consideration to the client are a lawyer’s highest responsibilities and goals. What’s more, a lawyer must act ethically, honestly, and honorably in dealings the court, opposing counsel and third parties. Law is — whether you subscribe to it or not — a profession steeped in honor, courtesy and doing right.
While it is true that a lawyer must zealously promote his client’s interests, such duty does not abrogate his duty to “do right.” A lawyer can’t simply make stuff up, lie, cheat and steal. There is a broad and deep gulf between advocacy, conniving and dissembling.
I was recently preparing a client for her deposition. I advised her that the deposition would likely be uncomfortable. Opposing counsel had a duty to his client to poke and prod a bit and, perhaps to probe about where nerves were raw. But I assured her, after nearly 30 years of practice that opposing counsel would be gentlemanly in his inquiry and he would not range beyond the bounds of decency. If perhaps he did, I assured her, I would “protect” her from any such assault. I compared the coming deposition to the annual physical with her doctor. While a bit uncomfortable and overly intimate, there was nothing personal about it.
When people come to see a lawyer, they often are in distress; often deeply so: a marriage has failed, a business deal has soured, a dream has shattered, he or she is being sued, or the possibility of criminal sanction looms like an ax blade overhead. While you certainly want — and have the right — to have a lawyer who is forceful and committed to your cause, you also — and most certainly — want one who understands and can empathize with the human toll your circumstances are exacting.
A lawyer who is out for “me first” and “you second, if at all” is, in my opinion, one whose door you should walk past briskly. You want one who knows the law, knows how the law may be exercised in your favor, one who cares about both you and the outcome, and understands the very human nature of what brought you to her door.
We are, after all, attorneys and “counselors” at law.
The best attorneys are those who are diligent, prepared and truly care. If there are sociopaths among us, their charm should not be mistaken as good lawyering. Part of being a truly good lawyer includes caring about both the person and the outcome.
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 and at either of his email addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.