I've been a divorce lawyer for about 34 years. And in that time, I've been prone to navel-gazing about what it is I do, and how I can do it better. See - the great thing about being a lawyer, is it's always a growth experience - if you let it.
So - as part of that growth experience, I found a link on Twitter to a book, "Lawyer Forward", by Mike Whelan.. and I found it particularly interesting and rather inspiring actually. And it caused me to consider, in a more focused way, what it is that I do.
Beyond that, Mike answered a particular question that I hadn't really considered too deeply until today:
Why do my clients need a lawyer?
Odd question, 34 years into a practice, no? I guess the answer seemed relatively self-evident. I have a law degree. I "know" the law (by which I mean, I have a general understanding of the law, which is then supplemented by my ability to research to gain a more current and specific understanding of the law). Beyond that, I know about legal procedure - how the Rules of Court work, and how matters proceed from the issuance of a Statement of Claim, to trial, and then, occasionally to an appeal.
Isn't that it? My law degree and my capacity to understand the rules and regulations make me indispensable, no?
Well. Not necessarily. And here's the issue. It's why lawyers are failing to capture public trust and confidence and why more and more people are going to court on their own as self-represented litigants.
You see - the with the advent of "Google Law" - most people of average intelligence can do basic research and then from there, with the assistance of a system which is slowly becoming more "user friendly", they can find their way into court and on to trial.
So. They don't need lawyers, do they?
Or do they?
And do lawyers understand what it is that our client's need? I'm not sure I understood it after 34 years of family law practice, until I picked up Mike's book (highly recommended btw for any lawyer who is sick of "the same old, same old" and wants to be a better and happier lawyer.)
Here's the thing that Whelan points out (among other great insights) - what a good lawyer... what an "expert" lawyer provides is this:
a) Experience - not just years behind a desk, not just some generic experience of running on the legal hamster wheel of legal practice, but experience in paying focused attention to a specific area of practice - in my case, family law;
b) Recognition of Patterns - if you're paying attention - to your clients, to the other party, to other lawyers, and to judges, you start to see "patterns" - things that aren't written down in a book or a statute anywhere. Things that they don't and really can't teach in Law School, or anywhere. Over time, you begin to see how people, lawyers and judges react when certain things happen... when someone cries in court, when someone doesn't pay their child support, when someone lies in an affidavit, when someone quits a job for a good reason or a bad reason.... when someone has their heart broken by someone they used to trust...;
c) The Ability to Convert Experience and Recognition of Patters to Solid Advice and Legal Work - which isn't always in a courtroom - most often it's in their office, explaining to a client how the pain and anguish they're feeling may prevent them from making their best decisions so urging them to obtain counseling before they make decisions on how they wish to proceed. Or it's on the phone with the other lawyer, knowing that asserting your position is more likely to be reasonably considered if you are both polite and measured in your language. Or it's in a courtroom where you have learned how to tell your client's story in a manner which may resonate best before the judge.
You can't get that in a law book, and while I'm here explaining it online, you really can't get that online with a Google Search. You can get a flavor of it, perhaps. You can get some sense of it. But the value of having someone who has watched things happen - who more importantly - has "paid attention" to those things, is the real value of a decent lawyer. That is what you're paying for. And, if a lawyer is good at what they do, and can apply those patterns, quite often they can actually save you money - by facilitating settlement BEFORE litigation occurs.
So - there it is. And if you're a lawyer, time to start paying attention. Grinding out work ("Churning" Whelan calls it) over many years, really doesn't make you a good lawyer. it's about understanding, in a fundamental way, what's happening in and around you. It's about being curious. It's about always growing. It makes life interesting, and makes us better lawyers.
It gives us "value" beyond a law degree.