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July 23, 2003

They Don’t Teach Humility in Law School

Filed under: pre-06-2006 — David Giacalone @ 4:20 pm

There’s an article posted today on the ABA Journal webpage that is destined to be hanging in a lot of law firm snack rooms.  It’s called Working Together 101: Lawyers May Have the Degree, But They Can Take a Lesson From Support Staff (dated July 24, 2003, by Stephanie Francis Ward, from the July edition of ABA Journal ).

Meant to help new associate lawyers appreciate and work more smoothly with support staff, the article has lessons that apply to all lawyers who work with nonlawyers:

The author advises:

Secretaries don’t often have advanced degrees, but they often know more about some parts of legal practice than the associates they work for. Not recognizing that is one of the biggest mistakes young lawyers make, says [Sharon Davis, a Denver-based legal staffing advisor].

“Support staff knows the court rules, what needs to be filed where and what the deadlines are,” she says. “Associates have been educated through law school and passed the bar, but they still don’t know … how many copies of something you have to file with the federal court.”

Others who specialize in staff issues say secretaries can teach young lawyers a lot, if lawyers are willing to listen. If associates take the time to learn their secretaries’ strengths, the knowledge can be a big boost for young lawyers’ careers.

Sometimes associates come out of school with quite a large ego and attitude,” says Gale Jarosz, human resources director of a Seattle law firm. “I coach them that they need to leave that behind and work as a team with their secretary.”  [emphases added]

Amen.  Working as a team with the client is another important skill needed at all levels of the profession.  Lawyers need to learn to listen to what the client really wants and what the client knows that can help the lawyer do a more effective and more efficient job.   I hope the skills of cooperating and listening are getting a lot more attention now than they got when I was in law school three decades ago.  Back then, they weren’t in the curriculum at all.  And, it often shows.  Such people skills would go a long way toward improving the reputation of lawyers (inside and outside their offices).

Who’s a “Trial Lawyer”? (and who’s “name calling”?)

Filed under: lawyer news or ethics — David Giacalone @ 10:39 am

Blogger Larry Sullivan over at the Delaware Law Office writes passionately this morning in a piece captioned Aren’t There At Least Two Trial Lawyers Per Trial?. Larry decries President Bush’s “name calling” over trial lawyers, while calling the President’s tactics “slimy” and “school yard posturing.”

I can’t believe that I’m defending George W. Bush, or that I’m spending time worrying about lawyer civility.  However, I have to point out that it is the plaintiffs’ tort, personal injury and 1st Amendment bar itself that has appropriated the term “trial lawyer,” and worked hard to differentiate “trial lawyers” from the pro-corporate “defense bar.”   For example, take a look at the  website of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, including ATLA’s Action Network and Proud to Be a Lawyer page — where corporate and defense counsel are not exactly welcomed.

It hardly seems deceptive to call a group by the name it has given itself.  And it is not surprising or scandalous that a politician would use a catchword that whips up his own political supporters and magically opens their wallets — especially when it also has negative connotations for many people outside his party and social strata.

Of course, I agree when Larry says “But let us work together to improve the judicial system with reforms that really help all of the people, not just the special interest campaign contributors.” I just hope he realizes that both sides (“trial lawyers” and corporate interests) are actively and constantly using campaign contributions to gain special political favors, protection and power — all in the hope of achieving social and political goals, which just coincidentally bring them huge financial rewards.  As lawyers, we all need to take off the blinders of financial self-interest and partisan gain, in order to fulfill our professional and civic obligation to craft a better judicial and legal system.

Update (7/23/03): Larry Sullivan of the Delaware Law Office was kind enough to respond rapidly to my remarks above. Here are his comments and my reply (which is admittedly a bit preachy):

LDS: Hi David, Thank you for your comments. I was utilizing the term “slimy sort of politics” as a tongue-in-cheek example of the behavior of which I was objecting. And so I don’t think that your quote quite does my entry justice.

As to the remainder, I think we are basically in agreement. The indiscriminate slurring of our profession has a detrimental impact upon the respect for the justice system as a whole. I find that this interferes with clients’ ability to deal with the situations and advice that is presented to them. Even common jokes about lawyers have a deeper and insidious cumulative effect upon our reputation as a whole. And it is only the respect and reputation of the attorneys, the courts, and the judicial process which allow these elements to work for the people. I do realize that there are at least two sides to every debate. I take the third. I support the legitimacy of the process.

DAG: Thanks for the explanation and expansion on your thoughts, Larry. Personally, I have no problem with lawyer jokes and think the profession as a whole needs a better sense of humor, and needs to worry far less about its “dignity” and “reputation” and much more about living up to the high standards and goals that it purports to uphold. Then, its reputation will take care of itself.

Lawyers will earn the respect of society, not with public relations campaigns and civility seminars, but (1) client by client, performing with diligence and competence, informing them fully, and treating each with respect as the “king” we are serving and advising, not just the cow we’re milking; (2) socially and politically, by taking positions that advance the public good and help assure access by all to legal services, rather than acting like a cartel or guild protecting the interests of the profession; and (3) ethically, with far stricter discipline and adherence to Rules of Conduct, using a process that is more open and effective.

Update II (7/24/03):  The anonymous NC attorney who writes Business Law Weblog had some sharp and interesting words yesterday (7/23/03) on Larry Sullivan’s original posting about politics and “trial lawyers,” and was nice enough to point his visitors over to this site.

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