A lawyer’s job
The question is not what a lawyer does — that is comparatively easy — but what is a lawyer’s job?
What lawyers do is practice law. Well, duh. And what that consists of is listening (I cannot emphasize enough how important listening is), reading and digesting, researching, strategizing, thinking, writing, advocating and presenting a client’s position in a clear, persuasive, and sometimes forceful manner.
I have a friend and mentor who is a lawyer — perhaps 15 or 20 years more senior than I am — who told me he once had a partner who billed clients for “thinking about” the client’s matter. We, of course, shared a laugh — clients generally want something more concrete than cogitating over something — but on reflection, I realized that “thinking” about a client’s matter is some of the most important stuff a lawyer does. It may, in fact, be the most important thing a lawyer does.
I cannot tell you how many epiphanies I have had over a particularly troublesome matter while in the shower, upon waking, in the weight room, or on a long bike ride.
At the end of the day, the most important thing a lawyer brings to the table is his diligence, intellect, work ethic, compassion, character and his commitment to his client. This is not to say, however, that the client’s battle is the lawyer’s. The client’s battle is the lawyer’s responsibility and one to be taken with earnestness, but a lawyer should not be confused with the client nor should the lawyer confuse himself with the client’s battle. When a lawyer does get the two mixed up, he may be prone to becoming overly emotional and thus diminish his effectiveness as the client’s advocate.
One of the important services a lawyer renders is, while acknowledging and taking seriously a client’s concerns, frustrations and what is often pain (divorce, for example, can be terribly painful and emotional), is to appraise the client’s situation rationally. If the lawyer becomes too bound up in the client’s struggle, then he may render himself less effective and, by so doing, disserve the client.
It is the lawyer’s duty, too, to be honest with his client. It is a mistake for a lawyer to make promises he cannot keep or to fail to honestly assess a client’s circumstances. A good lawyer will advise a client when the matter he has come to see the lawyer about is simply not worth pursuing. A lawyer, too, should candidly discuss with the client what the potential costs of one course or another could likely — or potentially — be, in terms not only of dollars and cents, but the client’s investment of both time and emotional energy. Sometimes, money is just money, and will not repair the psychic wound that is the real “nut” of the client’s claim.
It is worth noting that lawyers call themselves, and are sometimes called, “counselors” or “counselors at law.” This is worth a moment’s reflection. It is, I think, little respected how essential the “counseling” function of a lawyer really is.
“To counsel” means to guide and to advise. And in a sense, a lawyer is the client’s tour guide as the two together navigate the legal system. Not surprisingly, communication is essential. More than simply guiding though, the lawyer must also advise, hold a client’s hand when necessary, examine the client’s motivations, the psychology of the matter, and the facts and help the client understand the law which may be relevant to his case. The next step is to advise the client how the law may be applied and when the law may be “stretched” a little in hopes the court will expand its view of an existing interpretation.
While not exactly a “crap shoot,” there are seldom hard and fast answers in any case for the simple reason that, like a person’s DNA, no two set of facts are exactly alike.
I do not meant to neglect “transactional” law; that is the law of “transactions,” contracts, estate planning and their legal cousins. But while different in the forum in which transactional battles are fought as compared to litigation, the essence of counseling and advising is the same. Simply, sometimes a client cannot do what he would like to do, or else the attorney may advise that there is a better way to reach the goal.
Trust between a client and his lawyer is critical. But it must go both ways. The client must be confident that the lawyer has his interests at heart. But so, too, must the lawyer trust the client. When a client pours out his heart to you, it is best, most times, to believe he is sincere. And when a client emphasizes that a particular thing is important to him, well, he wouldn’t have spent the time to tell you so if it were not.
Lawyering, like most professions, is perhaps equal parts art and skill. Just like a surgeon whose skills may be exemplary, if his bedside manner sucks, well … it takes a little of the wind out of you. In the same way, if the lawyer does not respect his client to the same degree he hopes the client will respect him, then it shakes the bond of trust that is essential to the relationship. Lawyering is, after all, a “people” thing. At its core, the law and the raft of legal cases that have accumulated during the years are stories about people and their lives. In geology, without people, there are still rocks. Without people and their stories, there simply is no law.
So I’ve digressed a bit. Forgive me.
What is a lawyer’s job?
His job is to make things better for his client to the fullest extent that he is able.
Simple as that.
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.