Lawyers like to give advice to other attorneys. I remember vividly a successful criminal defense attorney saying, “Read a good novel a week.” Good lawyers need to be good writers, and I thought that the injunction was telling me that to be a good writer, I should be widely read in all sorts of writing. That made sense. The best attorneys can transform the driest legal writing into something more compelling. Perhaps novel reading aids that endeavor. But my mentor went on to say that to be a good trial attorney, you need to understand human nature, and good novels teach about that. I would expand that. All attorneys, not just those who try cases, need an understanding of human nature, so perhaps all attorneys could benefit from good literature. I don’t know how much lawyers really learn about human nature from good novels in a way that helps their legal practice, but I wanted to believe it, perhaps because novel reading was more pleasurable than reading decisions of the appellate courts. I liked the thought that Persuasion could help my legal career.
I got advice from another attorney about the importance of understanding human nature. An older attorney with an outstanding reputation was representing one defendant and I a co-defendant in an unusual criminal case. Both of us had filed motions to dismiss with accompanying briefs. We were standing in front of the judge who was giving a decision on our motions. The judge first told us that our arguments were deficient and suggested that our theories were ludicrous or slipshod. The judge then paused and after a moment continued with as much of a condescending tone as he could muster. He said, “But counsel have not considered another theory.” He started to outline an argument that was exactly what I had written in a portion of my brief. I started to say that I had made that point when I felt co-counsel firmly pull my shoulder towards him. He leaned in and whispered for me to shut up and continued, “If the judge thinks he thought of it, we will win.” I knew immediately that the co-counsel was right and stopped in mid-sentence. The judge did dismiss the case. I learned not only about human nature but also another piece of wisdom all lawyers should know–avoiding a hurt ego is not as important as successfully representing a client. The client comes first, not the lawyer.
This lesson was similar to one I learned and used many times and which I repeated to attorneys whom I supervised. Never say: “Your Honor, you don’t understand what I am saying.” Instead, “I am sorry Your Honor. I am not making myself clear.” And then, using the simplest words and concepts, try again in hopes that the idiot judge will understand.
A few other words of advice to the new or would-be attorney. Never use “Esquire” or its abbreviation after your name. It is pretentious and a mark of insecurity to many, if not most, sensible people.
Never write a word followed by the numeral in parenthesis, such as, “A week is seven (7) consecutive days.” For incomprehensible reasons, some attorneys think this kind of writing is lawyerly. They are wrong. It is redundant, pretentious, and a mark of insecurity.
Of course, as I discussed last time, there are many jokes about the legal profession, but the would-be lawyer should know that for some people it is not a joking matter. Many people despise the legal profession as a whole. Few who meet a doctor, accountant, or engineer instinctively assume something bad about them because of their profession, but that is the response of many towards lawyers. This is largely because in many adversarial interactions, somebody loses…never a happy prospect. And they despise the lawyer who occasioned that loss.
If you are smart and want to be a lawyer, you should also be aware of something else. If I ask you to name a genius, I might get responses in the scientific fields, such as Einstein or Newton. I might hear names from the arts—Monet, Mozart, Shakespeare, or Goethe. I might hear inventors like Edison or even entrepreneurs or investors like J.P. Morgan, Steven Jobs, or Warren Buffett. I won’t hear the name of a lawyer, and that says something about how the profession is regarded.
But no matter how others see the profession, being a lawyer can be an outstanding calling. A lawyer’s job is always to help someone other than the attorney. It may be a new business seeking to incorporate or an established corporation seeking to promulgate a rights offering. It may be a landlord or a tenant. The lawyer may help a person navigate immigration law. The lawyer might help a person who is accused of a crime or prosecute those who are accused of a crime to make society safer. And so on. The legal profession at its best is a helping profession. And while the legal profession is like many others in that there is much drudgery, a lawyer, if lucky, can find intellectual stimulation on a fairly regular basis. Finally, while few attorneys become rich, many make what would be for most Americans a comfortable living.
A comfortable income; helping others; intellectual stimulation. When those come together, lawyering is a great profession.