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What I’ve Learned About Life On The Way To The Courthouse: What I learned from the dog and the skunk


By R. MICHAEL WELLS SR., Special to Lawyers Weekly

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One of the most valuable lessons I learned about being a lawyer I learned before I started law school.

I worked as a runner for a law firm in college. The firm was a prominent, old-line firm with a good book of business, and it had some high-powered lawyers to take care of that business.

One of the lawyers was particularly bright, and well regarded for his intellect. He had graduated No. 1 in his class at a top 10 law school. And he had the ego to go along with it.

The lawyer was known to take things out on the staff, which could do little or nothing about it, of course. He had a troubling procrastination habit, and when he was making up lost ground on a matter, it was all the staff’s fault.

He was not well-liked by the staff at all, and for good reason. His considerable skill set and intellect generally caused clients to overlook some of his abrupt and dismissive ways. But towards the end of my time with the firm the word was some key clients had come to the end of the road of understanding about his nasty habit of talking down to people.

Sometimes you are in a position of authority or respect and you can get by with talking down to a person who does not have the standing or intellect to take you on. Sometimes you are having one of those days, your emotional trigger gets tripped, and a burst of condescension comes roaring out.

But if you are a person of education and intelligence, the most important skill you have may be to learn when not to press the advantage, just because you can. And to learn that condescension, however unintended and situational, is condescension all the same.

Years ago we had a client who blamed everybody else for their problems. We had charted out a course that would have taken the client beyond the reach of those problems, but the client simply failed to follow through.

We had spent a considerable amount of time and effort, and done some pretty good lawyering, too. All of which was going to be lost, including any chance we were going to be paid for our efforts.

Despite my strong belief that a harsh attitude towards others is not acceptable behavior, the confluence of these events tripped my trigger. And I violated my own fundamental rule.

We had a session which started out with the client’s normal litany of excuses about how everyone else was at fault. Rather than focusing on a solution, I took the occasion to address the client’s attitude. Which was appropriate to a degree. But I should have avoided the sharpness of my comments.

In the end, everything I said was correct. But I sure could have handled it better. As a client with a modest education who was intimidated by lawyers anyway, the client listened, but it would have been obvious to anyone (except me) that what I said was not well received, to put it mildly. The substance, but more than that, the way I said it.

We sent the client on their way. The client was never going to do what the client needed to do. But with reflection, I came to believe that all of my good lawyer judgment had been trumped by my poor people judgment.

We all know the old saw that for every satisfied client who tells one other person something good about you, the unsatisfied client will tell 10 people something bad about you. Whether what they say is true or not is really immaterial. You are not there to defend yourself, and your thrashing is likely taken as the truth.

There is no telling how many thrashings I have gotten from that former client over the years. And I could have avoided them if I had not pressed my advantage upon the client in a dismissive fashion.

“A dog can whip a skunk, but it’s not worth it,” says some old country wisdom from where I grew up. Just because you can press an advantage in a relationship does not mean you should.

When you are a person of education, intelligence or authority, or you possess some other distinct advantage of status in a situation, as you will often have, you really have to stay on your guard not to press that advantage in a way that denigrates or diminishes another person. The fact it comes in a quick flash of emotion and it is not in your normal nature does not really change the result, does it?

My wise father used to say you should see everyone at eye level. You do not look up to anyone in jealousy, but you sure don’t look down on anyone, either.

As a lawyer, dedicated to the proposition of Lady Justice, blind to all differences of those who appear before her, we really compromise our considerable influence as lawyers if we do not, at the same time, treat everyone equally with the respect they deserve. They really go hand in hand, don’t they?

What I have learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this: treat everyone with respect. Do not abuse your position of authority. When your personal hot button is hit, you are tired, out of sorts, or you are having a bad day, watch yourself. You can sure whip the skunk most times. But it’s not worth it. Take it from a dog who knows.

Editor’s note: Wells is a partner with the firm of Wells, Jenkins, Lucas & Jenkins in Winston-Salem, where he practices in the estate planning area. He also writes a monthly legal column for the Winston-Salem Journal, and he is the host of a weekly public service legal call-in show on WSJS 600 AM.

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