I’m now in my 14th year of practicing law. While I’m not yet a planning any retirement parties, I’ve got a fair bit of my life invested in this profession. Over that time, I have noticed an evolution in the way I think about the law and my role in it.
Fresh out of law school, I, like most new lawyers, saw getting the “right” legal answer as the goal of practicing law. Each client and case was an exam question that I wanted to get right.
Then, it evolved into a need to “win.” You realize that the “right” answer doesn’t always win the day (and may not even exist); you want to win. Even if the legal basis is dubious or makes poor policy, you want to win for your client, and yourself. “Winning” at that stage means beating your opponent in the every legal argument, hearing, or dispute. It means pressing every advantage and trying to exploit every possible chink in your adversary’s armor. It means having a court tell you that you were right and the other side is wrong. It is about getting more out of them then they got out of you.
It is, in retrospect, largely a selfish endeavor for the lawyer. It fuels your ego; it makes you feel competent and successful.
But, a lawyer’s need to win or be right fuels more unnecessary expense, court time and wasted time than I would have ever imagined when I earned my law license. My current opinion is that this dynamic is largely responsible for the negative perception of lawyers in our society.
After I practiced that way for a while, I began to realize that “winning” is relative, and that in our court system, winning often costs well more than it is worth. I saw a lot of clients and adversaries lose by winning.
There are some relatively rare legal situations where unqualified victories occur. But, as most honest lawyers will tell you (if you can get them away from Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster), there is rarely a complete victory in our legal system, especially in family law. And the competitive (or emotional) side of most clients and lawyers makes us minimize the costs and emphasize the possibility of complete victory.
After years of seeing this play out, my thinking in this regard slowly began to change. I have gradually come to view the practice of family law not as a contest, but almost entirely as a means of helping people solve problems.
In law school, you are taught that the way our society solves legal problems is through law suits in the courts. It can take years to realize that court is one of the worst ways to resolve a conflict, and some lawyers and clients never make that realization. (A caveat here: There are certainly some problems that need to be resolved by courts and our courts are a far sight better than most legal systems).
In reality, lawsuits are just one means of solving problems. And, given that they are generally the most expensive, time consuming and destructive strategy for problem solving, I feel that they should be the last strategy used in most cases.
The irony is that about 90% (my guesstimate) of lawyer education and continuing training is devoted to this option. There are some classes and opportunities to learn and sharpen other skills in law schools. But, the overwhelming emphasis is on argument and learning how to either be right, or convince someone else that you are right. Even if you are wrong.
Eventually, I think a lawyer has to ask themselves “To what end am I applying my skill, experience, knowledge and effort?” Is it to win? Is it to put on a show? Is it to be affirmed in our intelligence, “rightness”, legal opinions and brilliant strategies by a court system? Or, is it to help a client solve a problem?
The older (er, I mean the more experienced) I get, the more apparent it becomes that the whole point of being a lawyer is to simply help people avoid and/or solve problems. That is, to help people solve their problems that have legal implications in the most efficient and effective way possible.
It seems to me that the goal of a lawyer should be to gain and apply their skill, experience, knowledge and effort towards efficiently and effectively doing that. That is much different, and far more important, than the goal of “winning”, being “right” or feeding a professional ego.
If I were hiring an attorney for my legal problems, whether they be related to divorce, business disputes, personal injuries or most other issues that people are likely to face, I would want an attorney that was focused on helping me solve my problem. I would not care whether that attorney felt “right”, felt like they “won”, or felt like their intelligence and competence had been affirmed in the process.
I would not want the most competitive lawyer, I would want the best problem solver. Because it’s not about the lawyer, it’s about the client.