The Lawyer’s Compass: Embracing Your Full Potential as a True Guardian of Justice

Just the other week I was talking with a client who hadn’t worked in eight months because of being rear ended. After months of therapy and injections, the verdict was in. He needed surgery.  One year prior to this accident, he had a knee replacement and finally recovered to the point to get his business going again, only to find himself having to hire me because of a collision.

He was having a hard time coping with all life was throwing at him. He was freaking out over how little money he had left, would he be able to return to his physically demanding work and keep the business he’d developed for so many years going? Would the surgery work? It was mid afternoon and I had so much work to do.

As I picked up the phone, I thought “How do I keep this short? I don’t have the time to talk with him again for 20 minutes. We’ve been over this so many times.” As I heard his voice, I realized I had a choice to make.

What image comes to mind when you hear the word guardian? A warrior with a shield and sword? Or a parent protecting their child? Both aspects are at the core of what it means to be an attorney. Unfortunately, as lawyers, it can be all too easy to be the one who does battle rather than the one who nurtures.  

If we don’t have the legal skills to advocate for our client, when battle comes, we will be out maneuvered. If we can’t lay down our sword and shield, how do we provide the emotional care our clients need?

What does being the best lawyer mean to you? Someone who is great at the specialized technical skills that the client needs? Or, is it being able to meet the emotional needs of your client? My guess is we tend to gravitate to the former. Being a guardian requires both.

When representing a client I must make sure I have the skills their case requires. If I don’t, then I acquire them or  associate with someone who does.

A guardian provides guidance, care, assurance and compassion. The vast majority of our  clients are looking for these attributes when they hire an attorney — whether they realize it or not. It’s the part of being a lawyer that the certificates on the wall don’t speak to. No amount of superior technical knowledge can overcome the failure to provide the nurturing aspect of a true guardian.

By digging deeper into our awareness of what a client truly needs and understanding that they are deserving of our compassion — even while driving us nuts — we elevate the legal system, society, and ourselves.

Back to the conversation with my client, as I picked up the phone I had four choices:

  1. Rush through the conversation to get off the phone as quickly as possible, because I had so much work to do before I go home;
  2. Listen to him talk while looking at my computer and respond to easy emails;
  3. Tell him politely that we’ve been over this and there is nothing we can do change thingswhich, by the way, was fairly true;
  4. Fully identify that here is a person who is suffering, that really needs help and I’m the best person right now for that job.

I know what was the right choice for him and me. As I closed my eyes, took several deep breaths, tilted back in my chair and focused on him, I could hear him start to calm down. By the end of the conversation he was feeling greatly relieved. Not because of my technical skills, but human relationship skills. It was one of the most rewarding conversations of the day.

The attorney-client relationship is a unique arrangement — if we choose to pursue it. It allows us to peer into the inner workings of our clients as we help them navigate the emotional needs that in part brings them to us.

The primary relationship we forge as an attorney can be either technically driven (the Dragnet approach of “Just the facts Ma’am”) or it can also be an opportunity to communicate at a deeper level that is reserved for only a few relationships in our lives.  

We are warriors and nurturers. It’s not easy. But that is one of the true callings of being an attorney. If we choose to occupy both places at the right times, we will be rewarded with a life well livedeveryday. We’ll also have the gratitude of our clients.

Which do you find yourself gravitating to: Warrior or Nurturer? What changes can you make to allow you to be the best you can at both?

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  • Dave H
    Reply

    Love this! You have a unique ability to see the growth potential and personal benefits in situations that just look like annoyances to the rest of us. Thanks for the reminder that putting in the effort to connect has its own rewards.

    • Jim Dwyer
      Jim Dwyer
      Reply

      Thank you Dave! When I try to reframe a potentially frustrating interaction it definitely helps.

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