How to Understand Your Lawyer in Context
I think my law school acceptance letter was probably a week old when I was given the gift of the first lawyer joke that was directed at me (no, I don’t remember it). It was an early lesson in how society perceives or misperceives lawyers.
I didn’t know any lawyers growing up. No one in my family or extended family was a lawyer. As far as I knew, lawyer jokes were completely accurate. (Although I did hear with some frequency the exasperated refrain from every parent with an argumentative child: “You should be a lawyer when you grow up.”)
But, almost two decades into a legal career, it is clear to me that while our reputation as lawyers has largely been earned, so much of what we do and why we do it is a complete mystery to the public and our clients.
That mystery is a double-edged sword for lawyers. On the one hand, it creates a sense of value for our services because only the specially trained can understand and navigate the labyrinthine legal system. On the other hand, it allows for an interpretation of our professional behavior (and therefore our profession as a whole) as unethical, abusive, dishonest, and just plain mean.
I think one of the solutions to this is for both lawyers and clients to have a better understanding of what lawyers do and why they do it. As a client, I imagine it is very difficult to understand all of the context and the subtext of the advice provided and steps taken by an attorney. And while there are certainly some attorneys that have reveled in their inglorious reputations, the vast majority of attorneys that I’ve met would prefer to not be demonized by opposing parties and the public in general.
All of this led me to a book recommended by a colleague called “Why Lawyers Behave As They Do” by Paul G. Haskell. Part of an American Bar Association book series on law, culture, and society, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law Professor explores and explains the choices that lawyers have to make every day in representing clients. It explains why the attorney behaviors that society frowns upon come to pass, the often complex analysis of what the “right” thing is in a particular situation, and the tensions created by the pressures to obtain results for clients.
I read this book and immediately bought a copy for the young law school graduate I knew. In my perfect world, every lawyer would have to read this book before beginning their practice and every few years as a refresher. It is a tremendous resource for lawyers.
But, it is also the best source of insight for a client that I have found. At only 105 pages, it is a short read. But, it explains so much of what an attorney is required to do, the choices they face, and the sometimes very thin lines they walk in pursuing the best outcomes while acting honorably and in accord with their personal values.
If you are a lawyer, this book will be a valuable, if not fascinating, exploration of what you do every day, the decisions you make, and how and why you make them.
If you are a client that regularly uses legal services or is currently working with a lawyer, taking a few hours to read this book will give you a new and revealing perspective on what your attorney is doing, and why.
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