John Hardy is a recent graduate of Drake University Law School, and he just finished taking the Iowa Bar Examination. He is joining Stamatelos & Tollakson once admitted to the bar. This is his first blog, and we are honored to have a lawyer of his caliber in our firm. Welcome John!
A lawyer is a poet. Language is the medium of the law, and word choice matters. It matters when legislators draft the law, it matters in front of a factfinder, and it matters when a lawyer is counseling a client. Legal writing has a tradition and history, just like poetry, with technical formal requirements and stylistic conventions. A good attorney, like a good poet, is a master of the language and knows what to say and what not to say. But linguistics are only part of the job. As with poetry, being an excellent attorney also requires a deep understanding of the human condition. A good lawyer has a focused mind and an open heart, and when the two work in tandem, the practice can be a work of art.
The Human Element
The human element is the intangible needs of the parties to a legal matter and other people who are affected by it. For the most part, clients call on a lawyer when their lives are in crisis, sometimes they may even be at their rock-bottom. In order to truly serve their clients, lawyers must recognize the emotional and relational needs of their client, which means they must look beyond the facts and the law. Clients may be unable to wholly engage in the process or articulate their ultimate goals until they believe that their lawyer has invested the time and attention required to know who they are, what they’re dealing with, and, sometimes, how they are feeling. The best lawyers know that some fights are not worth fighting, even if they are winnable. A client may prefer to move on with their life and save their money.
Nuts and Bolts
It goes without saying that a successful attorney will cross every “t.” If a statute of limitations runs or the attorney fails to preserve an error, it will be of little solace that the attorney is a good listener. The primary function of the attorney is often to serve as the voice of the client within the system. In this role, attorneys’ primary function is to know the law and play by the rules on behalf of their clients. When people need a professional shoulder to cry on, they hire a therapist, not a lawyer. Of course, the lawyer may end up wearing both hats, but there is no substitute for diligent attention to the legal details. If the lawyer is an architect, designing solutions for the client, the legal nuts and bolts are the bedrock and foundation. Empathy is the interior design. If the house collapses, instantly the color scheme does not matter. Solid legal work sets the table for the client to thrive in the future.
The Poetry of Practice
The work of the best lawyers combines diligent legal work with a genuine concern for the well-being of the client. Here, everyone’s needs are met. Even the best lawyers with the best arguments can lose a case, or fall short of their client’s desired outcome. In a poetic practice, a skillful lawyer weaves together high-quality legal work, attention to the human element of the matter, and the lawyer’s own personal touch. Different attorneys can have vastly different life experiences, and their undergraduate studies can cover the spectrum from history and politics to music, art, and religion. Good lawyers draw upon their whole life experience to relate with the client as a human, and provide customized legal services to their client with wisdom.
Clients may come to the initial consultation thinking that they want to take the other party to the cleaners. The best lawyers will dig around underneath that to find out if the client understands the implications of that position, including the budget, and whether the client really wants that. Clients may have been coached by friends, family members, or anyone else, and they may have lost sight of what they really want. In a divorce with kids, for example, they may believe they want the house and six nights a week with the kids. But, in reality, maybe the mortgage payment is not affordable once the client is flying solo, and the spouse is a great parent. Maybe the client truly wants the kids to have a great relationship with both parents, and it isn’t worth fighting to reduce the spouse’s time.
Good lawyers can draw from their own experience, both as an individual and as an attorney who has been down the road before with other clients. Good lawyers can help a client to zoom out and take a holistic view of their situation and their family. Maybe the health and well-being of their children depends on having good access to both parents. And maybe there is enough money to go around and set up both parties for success, post-divorce. And maybe the long-term well-being of the children depends on seeing their parents setting a good example of mature, compassionate conflict resolution that the children can follow as they grow up.
These thoughts were inspired by a recent presentation to the Compassionate Lawyer Society at Drake University Law School by District Associate Judge Colin Witt. He opened with the reading of a poem: The House by the Side of the Road by Sam Walter Foss. The poem itself was the touchstone for concepts within his presentation, but also the choice to open with a poem, at all, served as a meaningful glimpse into who Judge Witt is, as a person. He emphasized the importance of focusing on human element in his role on the bench. This can serve as a reminder to the practicing attorney that providing excellent service to the client requires a keen understanding of the human condition. This, in turn, requires intentional and zealous self-care, so that the attorney is well-rested, healthy, and available to fully commit to listening to the client and advising and advocating for the client with integrity.