An easy and lazy habit that you can have as a lawyer is only seeing things from the perspective of a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to deconstruct problems and look for weakness, to approach situations with a critical perspective. But that does not mean that it is the only perspective that you need to have. One of the most voiced complaints from clients is that their lawyer doesn’t understand their view or their perspective on a case or matter.
This is likely due to a breakdown of communication between the lawyer and the client, and more than likely it is the lawyer’s fault. As a lawyer, it is very easy to fall into entrenched patterns and lines of thought — so easy that it is often difficult to step back from your role as a lawyer, and look at a case or a problem as a layperson or client. Harvard professor Theodore Levitt most aptly summed up this problem with his famous observation: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”
A lawyer is often apt to think of the law as the drill — how to use it, apply it, and make it work in any particular situation. But a client does not really care about the law, they care about the solution to their problem — the quarter-inch hole…
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.”
They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.” All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! It is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan,” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, “What is the matter?” They said, “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like.” Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched a different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features of what you all said.”
Clients do not care about the fine details or subtle nuances of case law or code sections. They are not concerned about the clever timing of your motion work or other “inside baseball” shop talk. All clients see is their problems — they are being sued, facing incarceration, in need of a prenuptial agreement. Your approach to these problems are largely inconsequential. What clients want is effective, efficient solutions to their problems, whether that be litigation, contract drafting, or perhaps just a phone call or a letter. It is a lawyer’s job to know which is needed and to explain it in terms the client can understand.
Beyond that, you have to be able to see all sides of a problem, not just the lawyer’s side. A client can often be like one of the blind men in the story, they only know that which is directly in front of them — and due to a lack of knowledge about the law, or nervousness, or anger or fear, they are unable to understand how their problem might be solved. They will have a difficult time understanding what you are doing to help solve their problems. They will be frustrated and believe that you don’t actually understand their problems because they can only see it from one perspective — theirs.
This is why it is important for lawyers to regularly spend time with people who are not lawyers. Observe how regular people communicate, how they explain things. To help clients understand their problems, the issues they are facing, you need to be able to explain the law in ways they can understand. You can’t just start dropping Latin phrases left and right. You have to be able to explain complex situations through analogy and story. Be able to break things down into easily digestible chunks.
You need to develop the ability to use unrelated experiences in your life to help explain nuances of complicated concepts. Can you set out how a springing power of attorney works in way that would be accessible and interesting to a group of high school students? Could you explain the difference between a contingent remainder and an executory interest using only cartoon characters?
Being able to take your knowledge as an attorney and then convert it into something that can be easily understood by regular people, and especially clients, is one of the most valuable skills you can develop.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @associatesmind.