Despite the endless supply of lawyer jokes, a legal degree has long created an aura of achievement and advancement. It’s not unusual to find lawyers like myself who come from working class families and viewed a legal career as an opportunity, at least in part, to advance our family’s economic trajectory. Most of us have known people over the course of our lives who can’t distance themselves from their upbringing quickly enough. At times, that was probably my own gut instinct. As my temples persist in greying, I often reflect on how valuable my growth experience was.
I regularly work with clients who come from working class families or backgrounds more disadvantaged financially than I could ever perceive. My life experience helps me communicate with these clients and have an appreciation for their fears and struggles. I understand some clients might not have the financial means to even travel to my office, let alone the funds to pay a ridiculous $25+ parking ramp fee. As a result, I don’t think twice about traveling to a client’s home to make one aspect of their lives easier.
I’m highly cognizant of what the value of a settlement could mean for some of my clients. There is an enormous segment of the population who would consider a check for $5,000 (or even less) to be an extraordinarily large amount of money. I’m reminded not to put my own ego and bank statement before helping them. At the same time, insurance companies are also well aware of this fact, which is why they often dangle easy, cheap fruit to see who bites. Recognizing and truly understanding your clients’ fears of receiving “zero” also better prepares you to arm them with the tools and courage to decline inadequate compensation.
I also reflect on my vocabulary and the vocabulary of others. My clients do not all have an equal database of words to express how they’re feeling. Rather than take offense to certain remarks directed at me, I work to decipher whether they’re truly angry at me or just scared and frustrated by the often-tragic issue that led them to my office. I’m cognizant of not using words and examples that undermine my genuine desire to convey empathy and build trust. I once watched an attorney attempt to build rapport with a working-class person by name dropping a private golf course with a six-figure membership fee. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.
More than anything else, reflecting on the journey thus far allows me to be grateful. There’s nothing wrong with goals and ambition. But if you’re a first-generation college or law school graduate, I hope there’s some aspect of your accomplishment that you find time to be proud of.