By Carol Didget Pomfret
It is November in New England and as the last of the leaves are falling from the trees we see nature’s clear indications of change. Days are shorter and temperatures steadily fall, moving from green plants and 70 degree days in September to bare branches and snow by Thanksgiving. But autumn change isn’t just happening outside; a lot of change is also happening inside law schools across the country.
Students arrive in late August with high undergraduate GPAs and strong LSAT scores ready to learn, but wholly inexperienced at reading cases, writing memos, or analyzing the law. Over the course of the first semester, students start to change. They begin to see the difference that word choice can make. They start to peel apart a fact scenario to focus on the critical facts, and they learn to analyze precedent and support their position.
Along with this change in thinking and the corresponding knowledge acquired, students start to throw around Latin phrases like “certiorari” or “amicus curiae” or find an argument for negligence in nearly every interaction on the street. When students return home for the December break, their families often find that what on prior visits might have been a normal, relaxed conversation becomes a tense interrogation peppered with unfamiliar vocabulary. Family and friends often wonder: What happened to the nice person who went off to law school?
While there is nothing wrong (and often much to be lauded) with this increased attention to detail and understanding of the nuances of legal analysis, it can be hard for students to reintegrate to their pre-law-school lives. We leave families to work out these new dynamics on their own, but it is critical to be cognizant of this change as law students turn into practitioners. The best lawyers are those who connect on a personal level, value their client’s expertise, and skillfully apply the tools of our trade. How do we apply our craft while staying aware of the issues and concerns of the non-lawyer client? Here are a few tips to keep you connected to your client’s world as you enter your new profession:
Don’t leave your old life completely behind
Practitioners must build bridges between the law and their client. Yes, sometimes clients are the general counsel of a business with a law degree of their own. With them you can speak in shorthand and analyze removal or bifurcation with no prior explanation. Nevertheless, the majority of clients are non-lawyers. Non-lawyer clients seek expertise, not a lesson in legal vocabulary or analysis. The people who surround us every day – like the owner of the local convenience store or our grandmother’s sweet neighbor – are usually the people who will come to us for legal representation. We must assess the client’s background and personality and acquire an appropriate demeanor. You can be a professional and still engage with clients in a fashion that is comfortable and natural to them. If we forget how to interact with them and only speak with our “lawyer hat” on, we will fail to build strong relationships and ultimately fail to build a strong client base.
Avoid complex legal terms – and if you must use them, explain them!
Effective representation begins with effective communication and an informed client. Don’t simply tell the town librarian that her home ownership has a “statute of frauds issue” or merely throw out to the fisherman that his trespassing claim will likely fail in the face of the “doctrine of laches.” Lawyers must present the law in a way that is accessible to the people paying their bills. Before a client can understand how the law will treat their case, your letter to them might require a paragraph explaining in layperson’s terms a particularly complex point of law.
Acknowledge – and utilize – a client’s expertise
A client may have a wealth of experience in their field and thus have plenty to teach you that can aid in their representation and simultaneously increase your knowledge. You may have learned a lot about the law, but your clients have expertise in their own areas. That librarian may have done extensive research on town property records and the fisherman may know every detail of the coast’s state and federal fishing regulations. Listen to their stories and learn from their experience. It will most likely enhance you as a lawyer and a person.
Remember the dynamics or emotions at play
In your eagerness to apply your knowledge as a professional, do not forget the personal. Many cases are full of emotion. When interviewing a devastated parent who has a child paralyzed due to medical malpractice you cannot merely be the detached evaluator who picked apart a case in the lecture hall. Similarly, a client who has been fired and believes it is because of their race may need to vent before they can hear your lecture on the difficulties in proving an employment suit or the complicated agency appeals process. Listen to your client’s story, truly “counsel” them before you advocate for them.
Carol Didget Pomfret is a Visiting Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk Unversity Law School. Professor Didget is a former federal clerk and corporate litigator.