Recently my 13-year-old daughter’s favorite response when I ask her more than two questions is “stop lawyering me.” According to her, depending upon the day, I ask her too many questions. Her requests that I stop “lawyering her” have caused me to change my interactions with her and truly apply my “lawyering skills” to our conversations, so that I can elicit the information that I am seeking. It turns out there are many interesting lessons that a trial lawyer can learn from their interactions with their kids and vice versa.
Don’t Expect Patience
Honestly, how many lawyer-parents would describe their children or their clients as patient and really mean it? Children of all ages want their parents’ attention and time without delay. The same is true of clients, particularly clients that are involved in litigation and have little control over the process, an opposing party, opposing counsel and the decision maker(s). A determined trial lawyer needs to understand that his/her client is not likely to have consistent patience and therefore, it is very important to be responsive to their needs on a timely basis and sometimes that means immediately.
Communicate Clearly and Often
How many of us have failed to effectively communicate with our children about what they need for a school project or what time they will be finished with a sporting event? It can certainly create havoc where havoc was unnecessary. Two-way clear communication is just as critical in the attorney-client relationship, and particularly so in business litigation. What is happening in litigation impacts a client’s business, and what is happening in the client’s business can impact the litigation. Communication must be two-way street. Sometimes, effective communication will mean communicating that nothing is happening at all. Just as clear and responsive communication is a necessity at home, it’s a necessity with clients.
Setting Expectations is Key
In all relationships setting expectations is important, but even more so with clients in litigation. It is not unusual for me to be late (just a little) to my kids’ events. I noticed early on that being late might bother my kids so I sat them down and said, “Kids, listen. Your mom has a lot to manage most days between work, volunteer activities and your activities. That means I will not always be on time for your events. I will be there, but please expect me to be late.” Two results occurred after this very simple expectation setting conversation. The first is that they do not worry, get angry or get anxious if I am late. They know I will be there. The second is when I am on time or even early, they are thrilled. Setting expectations with clients through clear and timely communication is even more important.
Expectations should not be assumed. Many clients who are engaged in litigation know very little, if anything, about litigation. All clients, even those sophisticated in litigation, want to know what is expected to happen and when, and sometimes more importantly, what may not happen. Advising your client about what may or may not happen and when and following through on the expectations that have been set is necessary for a successful attorney-client relationship.
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.
How much easier is it when we have planned in advance of an outing with our children by contemplating solutions for thirst, hunger and bathroom breaks? My children are always thirsty when we are in the car so I do not leave the house without having bottled water. This type of preparation allows me to avoid having to stop to get something to drink thereby saving time and expense when it’s likely I have no time to spare. (See above – late for kid’s events). Preparation as a trial lawyer is mandatory. I do not recall ever hearing an attorney declare that they were over prepared. Every trial lawyer’s goal should be to be the most prepared person in the room, and clients should expect nothing less from their lawyer. Preparation wins cases; failing to prepare loses them.
People have Emotions
To state the obvious, children can be dramatic. When your daughter calls you at work crying because she is going to miss the soccer party, or your son claims he has the most boring life in the “whole wide world” because you won’t buy him that Lego set. While a trial lawyer largely deals with business-related issues, nearly all cases in my practice involve a high level of emotion. That emotion plays a large role in a case – how it proceeds, client expectations, communication, how to prepare, the amount of work involved and ultimately the resolution. Continuously examining the emotions involved in the case is just as essential as preparing for the business and legal issues in the case.
Not All Questions Are Created Equal
As a parent, asking too many questions can certainly result in a shut-down of communication. In addition, the way in which questions are asked largely dictates the answers received, particularly with teenagers. When you ask, how was your day today? The response you receive: Good. When you ask, did you do anything fun in school today? Response: No. With such answers, you learn very little about what is going on in your child’s life. Direct, targeted questions are more effective: What is the best/worst thing that happened to you today? What goals did you accomplish today?
Similarly, asking your client (and opposing parties and witnesses) the right questions in a manner that elicits the information you seek can be vital to your case. One of the worst things that can happen in a case is to find out months into the representation that your client did not tell you material facts that are likely to negatively impact the result of the case. Hearing about material facts for the first time from opposing counsel, in a deposition from another witness, or in documents that you are reviewing is less than ideal. It is incumbent upon the lawyer to ask the right questions and elicit all of the information needed to provide effective advice and representation. For example, make it a point to ask all new clients to tell you the worst facts that you could expect to learn from the other parties. Inform clients that you expect them to fully disclose all such bad facts so that you can properly advise them and deal with such facts proactively. Having this conversation upfront allows better preparation and expectation setting.
Trial lawyers can learn a lot from parenting their kids. Lawyer away. Janel Dressen