Artisanal listening

McSweeney’s post last week, “I Am An Artisanal Attorney,” caused a ripple of laughter and sharing among lawyers on social media. If you have ever eaten small-batch honey from a meadery or had your mustache trimmed at a groomery or considered purchasing an ascot from an ascottery—or if you just need a laugh—stop and read it.

Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr
Courtesy Larry Hoffman/Flickr

Author and very special attorney John Frank Weaver promises not just to write legal documents, but to hand-craft his own paper from local flax and write the text in ancient script using a feather quill and squid ink:

Don’t be lulled into a complacent life filled with more cheap, manufactured goods than you’ll ever need and lawsuits that don’t reflect your uniqueness. Insist on a life well-lived with food, experiences, and litigation that reflect people and skills, not factories and automation.

After I finished laughing, which took a good long time, I wanted to make a semi-serious point. Weaver’s comic post taps into anxiety about new realities and related fears such as “Here Come the Robot Lawyers.”  In contrast, an artisan is “a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods.” How much of the legal market is and should be artisanal — or “bespoke” — and how much should be standardized or automated is a huge, ongoing, and critically important debate stoked by Richard Susskind and many others. (Here’s one article from the ABA’s Legal Rebels on Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers tapping into this debate.)

Even for those of us who, at heart, want to practice on the bespoke end of the spectrum, we might agree that lawyers don’t need to squeeze their ink out of local squids. They don’t need calling cards printed on Himalayan pressed paper. But it is a requirement of the profession to provide clients with legal services that are customized to the facts of the case. It is an ideal of the profession to tailor these services to the personality and needs of the client as well. And “thinking like an artisan” can be an excellent marketing practice for lawyers because clients may screen their lawyers based on objective criteria and then choose their lawyers based upon more artisanal criteria such as values and fit.

Drawing on what it means to be an artisan, one of the lawyer’s most “traditional methods” is quality face time with people. This relationship building is intertwined with the broader tradition of lawyer as trusted advisor. And one of the traditional techniques of the trusted advisor is listening. Listening is most often and most effectively done in small quantities, such as one-on-one meetings. It takes time and attention to focus on a client and make that client feel special. It takes skill to deploy active as well as passive listening and every other form of listening as needed in the moment. Being really listened to and understood makes a client person feel, well, special—kind of like some people feel when they sip cold-pressed juice infused with artisanal ice and nibble on a side of hand-crafted toast.

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