Just another balancing test?

What does it mean to think like a lawyer? On Simple Justice, criminal-defense lawyer Scott Greenfield took on this question for the benefit of a curious software engineer who asked. I recommend this post to new law students who also want to know, and to lawyers who are willing to reflect on what they do.

In the post, Greenfield talks a lot about logic, but it’s all wrapped up in and inseparable from the real-world experience of interacting in a complex situation with complex person, i.e. the client:

When someone walks into a lawyer’s office, they will tell their story. It’s usually a long story, convoluted and filled with extraneous details, all of which matter enormously to the story-teller because they suffered the details. It’s the lawyer’s job to focus, to sift through the details and figure out which are relevant (tends to make a fact more or less probable) and material (bears a logical connection to a fact in issue), and which are simply there, background noise of no consequence to whatever the core issue may be.

In this interaction, there will be conflicts in how the client sees the case and how the lawyer sees it: “To the lawyer, only the facts that affect the outcome matter. To the client, every detail matters.” Indeed, “[t]he client demands that the lawyer care about what matters to him.”  Different lawyers manage the conflict in different ways, some more effective than others:

Some lawyers prefer to handhold clients, catering to their sensitivities at the expense of addressing the relevant legal issues. Others prefer to guide clients to understand why some things matter and others, deeply important perhaps on an emotional level, are of no relevance at all on a legal level.

Greenfield ended the post by pointing out how lawyers must set aside the issues that interest them personally and focus on the client’s needs.  Recognizing and analyzing those issues comprise the “the hard work of a lawyer.”

After reading this post, I recognized how much it intertwined listening with the essential act of lawyering. From Listen Like a Lawyer’s Twitter account, I quickly tweeted the following:

 

And then the rest of the day, something kept bothering me.

Is it really a balance? (Just one more balancing test among so very many in legal doctrine and the lawyering-skills literature.)

Yes, it is a balance. Of course. In listening to a client and asking questions, most lawyers are going to show a mix — a balance — of empathy and analysis. Project too much empathy and the client will gain false hope and/or try to use the lawyer as a tool for “tangential beefs.” Project too much logic and the client will turn away.

This is an important point and one that some lawyers struggle with. For those who repeatedly gets entangled with unrealistic client expectations and, on the other hand, for those whose clients repeatedly become distant and wary, working on the balance may be worthwhile.

But it strikes me that Greenfield’s post was saying something more profound and difficult. He is not a fan of superficial thinking, and the idea of a simple balance isn’t exactly true to his point. 

What the post said is that lawyers shouldn’t be unempathetic. That’s a lot different than saying lawyers need to balance their logic with their empathy. Actually, he writes, “[t]hinking like a lawyer demands a dedication to harsh logic.” At the core of what we do, the law and its logic reign supreme. So really we are using empathy — and all our other communication tools — to help our clients understand the logic. 

We might need to listen more to do this. We might need to listen differently, or less (if the client is fixated on an irrelevant fact, as the post suggests). But we need to listen with discernment. By hearing their words, watching their faces and body language, using our experience and intelligence to notice what they aren’t saying, deftly steering the conversation to relevance, and generally bringing all of our listening skills to bear, we can be faithful to the law’s logic — while also performing the difficult task, articulated in Greenfield’s post, of guiding clients to understand.

Please share comments, particularly on this view of empathy and lawyering. It’s a conversation I hope to continue. 

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