There we stood, in the middle of the trail, screaming at each other.
Like most American males, my relationship with my father has, with some fairly blatant irony, gotten closer as I’ve entered fatherhood. But here we were arguing about how to hoist the baby backpack onto my shoulders without spilling my son out and bouncing his head off the rocks below me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t need my dad’s help. I’m now old enough to know that I do more often than not. But I’d huffed and puffed up the trail, taken off the backpack in a way that can only be described as maladroit, scampered up some rocks and taken the obligatory picture at the edge of a several-hundred-foot cliff, and now it was time to put the pack back on and head back down the trail.
But after my wife’s constant warnings to “watch out,” “hold his hand,” and “don’t let him go near the edge,” I have to admit my nerves were a little frayed. So when my dad asked to help, I would seem like a prime candidate for his assistance. Except that there was a particular way I wanted to be helped and that was by being left alone to hoist my son onto my back. My dad had a different, and in any other instance extremely helpful, point of view. So ensued a blow-up that left me threatening to drive home from our vacation early.
A while back I wrote an article espousing a theory of lawyers as counselors. In sum, I believe lawyers serve their clients best when they not only serve as masters of the legal universe and advocates for justice, but also counselors of the law. And to effectively do that requires us to accurately diagnose the ways in which our clients are seeking to be helped.
This aphorism became particularly apparent when I tried to help another lawyer in our firm with a family law client. To me, the matter was simple. Our client need to be extricated as quickly and as simply as possible from the present dispute. Easy diagnosis, easy course of treatment. Wrong.
Family law matters may seem like obvious examples, but I contend they are a distilled microcosm of the large legal landscape. Short, choppy, some would say impatient emails to our mutual client only made matters worse, I soon learned. Reaffirming, rationalizing, sometimes cajoling and explaining conversations that gave our client more time to adjust to her rapidly changing world were the better solution. Fortunately, we realized this quickly and instead of dismissing her seemingly panicked responses as that of an obviously unnerved domestic client, we saw them as calls for a particular kind of help and maybe not the kind we were pre-programmed to provide.
While not often as emotionally charged as family law clients, clients presenting seemingly straightforward commercial disputes can require a similar level of compassionate counseling.
Consider the typical business client seeking help in getting out of a long-term contract with some fairly punitive consequences for a breach. In all likelihood this is not the client’s only problem. Whether it’s trouble with regulators, problems with employees or threatening creditors, clients often reach us when they have nowhere else to turn.
While tough love is sometimes the answer, in addition to a host of legal solutions, an empathetic ear on someone who can calmly chart a course of action to deal with what may seem like impending doom may be what such clients need. They may also just need someone who isn’t going to be quick to point out the many ways in which they have failed and who is willing to jump into the proverbial boat and to help start helping to bail water.
So, as I look back upon that mountaintop meltdown, I wish I could back up and describe for my dad the exact kind of help that I needed and tell him that it wasn’t the fact that he was offering to help that was so offensive, but under those circumstances it wasn’t the type of help that I felt I needed.
Likewise, a conversation with a client about the kinds of help he or she is looking for, how you might work within the legal system to provide that kind of help, and how you might effectively communicate regarding that help would probably go a long way to make you not just a lawyer, but an effective counselor of law.
Marc Gustafson is a litigator and employment lawyer with Essex Richards in Charlotte