Imagine you are in the audience at a majestic Broadway play. The theater full, stage set, lighting dim. The curtains part and the play begins. Drama and tragedy unfold over the next two hours. The performance compels an ovation. Done with the play, you and your company depart for dinner.
You’re in Las Vegas at the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event. It’s time for the main event. The lights dim and the crowd roars. Two fighters enter the cage. The championship belt is on the line. The chain link door is locked shut and a grueling battle of wills commences. In the third round, the champion knocks out his opponent. You and your friends slowly make your way out of the arena, heading towards the Strip for a night of fun.
Both the actor and the fighter spend weeks and months in preparation for their brief time under the lights and scrutiny of the crowd. The actor memorizes her positioning, recites her lines, studies her character. The fighter drills techniques for years, conditions his body for months, and studies tape on his opponent for hours. All for one night….
These performances cannot be conjured up out of thin air. They involve work, study, and sacrifice. All of which is largely lost on the audience. The days and hours of training and rehearsal are invisible to the crowd. We never know the anxiety and fear that run through their bodies each time they step on the stage or into the cage. We don’t know about the support structure surrounding the performance. The director, stagehands, conductor. The coaches, training partners, doctors.
It’s no different for an attorney. The hours of toil behind the scenes to draft a contract, prepare a brief, or develop an argument are not seen by our most critical audience – our clients. Clients only see the performance, the final act, the end result of the late nights at the office and time spent away from friends and family. The client sees the trust, or the email, or an argument before the court. The technical skill, the effort involved, and the nuance of language are all lost on the client. It is unlikely they will ever have an educated appreciation for the work you have done.
And let’s be clear, largely speaking: They. Do. Not. Care. The Broadway crowd is unconcerned about the technical stage production. Frothing UFC fans care only for the night’s entertainment. Clients don’t retain you so they can be concerned about your problems; they retained you so that you would be concerned about theirs.
For clients, what matters most is the end result. Embarrassing failure or triumphant victory – that is what matters to the client. If failure is the result, you didn’t do enough. If victory is the result, it was too easy and you spent too much time on the matter. No matter how much or how little you do, it’s possible that the client will find some aspect of your representation to criticize if you did not properly manage the relationship.
And regardless of the last result, you have to immediately go back to the grindstone again. Pick up the pen, turn on the computer, answer the phone. Check the email, empty the inbox on your desk, call your spouse. Review the bills, pay off invoices, worry if you’re going to make it to the end of the month.
This can drag some attorneys down. They feel underappreciated. Used up and taken advantage of. But that’s all there is at the end of the day: hard work. Embrace it. Make it your own. Not a reviled thing, but a constant companion with you when you wake up in the morning. You can either let it drag you down or motivate you, push you to new limits, to strive to be better.
Yes, you’ll be paid for your services, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever receive applause. For many people you will be a transaction at best. For some an inconvenient requirement. For others a necessary evil. Every now and then, if you’re lucky, you will receive heartfelt appreciation. A handwritten thank you note. A homemade pie from a sweet old grandmother. These small tokens will brighten your day, but they cannot be relied upon to motivate you. Everyday you have to get up and do your best for every single client, whether they are aware of what you do for them or not.
Because while clients might not see work you put in, they will appreciate the results.
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.