Two hemispheres of law practice

 Securities law and divorce law. Lawyers in these practice areas may not be from different planets, but they live in different “hemispheres,” according to sociological work being explored by Deborah Merritt at the Law School Café. Her first post is here and second post here.

Flickr/CC by SA-2.0
Flickr/CC by SA-2.0

Merritt is revisiting the study Chicago Lawyers by sociologists John Heinz and Edwards Laumann. This study generated the “hemispheres” metaphor for categorizing the work done by lawyers:

Heinz and Laumann concluded that a “fundamental distinction” divided lawyers into “two hemispheres.” One group of lawyers “represent[ed] large organizations (corporations, labor unions, or government),” while the other “work[ed] for individuals and small businesses.” The division between these two was so sharp that “[m]ost lawyers reside exclusively in one hemisphere or the other and seldom, if ever, cross the equator.”

The concept of these two hemispheres immediately brought to mind potential differences in listening. Here are some exploratory thoughts. More are certainly welcome in the comments.

First-hemisphere listening

Listening in the “first hemisphere” means listening to large organizations. A single organization may or may not have a single “voice,” notwithstanding established lines of communication between the lawyer and client. A lawyer who represents an organization must know how to listen efficiently but broadly to the different perspectives of that organization. For example, what if the client contact urges an aggressive approach in a particular matter, but the key witnesses are unwilling or ineffective?

First-hemisphere listening may also involve heavy use of e-mail to enable simultaneous communication among a group. This could mean losing the nonverbal nuance of spoken conversation, as many critics of e-mail have pointed out. It’s a truism of e-mail skills that the best communicators know when to pick up the phone.

Listening to an organization also means sensing whether the key players remain satisfied with the work. As I recently heard a law firm’s chief marketing officer say, “When a [big] client isn’t happy with your work, they don’t tell you, because they don’t like confrontation. They just stop giving you any more work.” She made a great case for how a marketing officer in a big firm can help with listening to clients and teasing out more of what they really think.

Second-hemisphere listening

Listening it the “second hemisphere” would involve a different set of challenges. This second hemisphere brings to mind the more traditional image of listening such as one-on-one meetings where the lawyer listens actively and builds rapport. Perhaps the lawyer must guide the conversation to legally relevant facts, while respecting the client’s need to be heard. Many (almost all?) lawyers in this hemisphere also need strong skills in cross-cultural lawyering to be able to effectively listen to and problem-solve with their clients.

The business of law works plays a role here as well: lawyers must work on efficient yet welcoming intake procedures and appropriate listening behaviors from any staff who interact with individual clients. (See Lee Rosen’s tale of woe on Divorce Discourse, in which he interacts with a law firm in an attempt to refer some business.)

Why do these hemispheres exist?

So in terms of listening, are the two hemispheres more different or more alike? To think about that, we should think about why these different hemispheres exist in the first place. Merritt considers several factors such as income and power. Ultimately, she suggests—drawing from Heinz and Laumann’s work as well as Andrew Abbott from the University of Chicago—that the real issue is “professional purity”:

By professional purity, [Abbott] means the ability to resolve problems primarily through application of the profession’s own principles. The most prestigious professionals apply their knowledge to particular problems, but they do not grapple directly with messy facts or human emotions. Lower status professionals, in contrast, resolve problems that reflect a full range of “human complexity and difficulty.” (Andrew Abbott, Status and Status Strain in the Professions, 86 Am. J. Sociology 819, 823 (1981).

This idea helps to delve into the listening question. For the first hemisphere, perhaps listening takes a background role to the foreground role of legal analysis and problem-solving driven by that analysis. As Merritt writes, the lawyer’s role here is doing “some of the most ‘legally’ powerful work in the profession” such as examining “statutes, rules, and precedents to construct new, advantageous ways for the client to conduct its business.”

The privileged role of the lawyer here, doing this “legally” powerful work, perhaps can generate leeway for how and when the lawyer communicates. In the classic law-school legal-memorandum assignment, the legal analysis may lead to additional facts to investigate. Not knowing all the facts to investigate up front does not bring blame on the lawyer because unique legal analysis drives what needs to be known. Individual contacts in an organization may or may not be impressed with a particular lawyer’s communication skills, but one person’s experience may not be the most important criteria for selecting counsel.

Moreover in the first hemisphere, the organizational client’s workplace culture itself may discourage the expression of “messy facts and human emotions.” A non-emotional workplace culture could thus reduce the expression of these emotions in interactions with lawyers. (Merritt implies and I would argue that an emotion-suppressing workplace culture does not in fact mean the effective first-hemisphere lawyer need not worry about those emotions. More on this in a moment.)

For the second hemisphere, perhaps there is more obvious, explicit pressure on listening. It is certainly what is needed to deal with the “full range of ‘human complexity and difficulty.’” For individual problems that can’t really be solved with a neat legal solution, listening can go a long way toward helping and healing. An individual client may not know social-security law, but that client can recognize whether the lawyer is doing a decent job of listening. And the individual client may be less constrained on finding new counsel if the client feels dissatisfied. (However, lack of experience with lawyers and lack of a consumer mentality may cut the other way.)

Ultimately, Deborah Merritt suggests that the differences between the first and second hemisphere are less than we might think:

“Both hemispheres involve mundane, repetitive tasks, as well as intellectually challenging work. Similarly, effective education of ‘second hemisphere’ lawyers is just as intellectually demanding as that for ‘first hemisphere’ ones.”

First-hemisphere lawyers who refuse to delve into “messy facts” ultimately do risk their relationship with organizational clients. Merritt cites the facts that corporations complain when their law firms do not take the time to really understand their business.

What does this mean for law schools?

Merritt makes a number of points about teaching and scholarship. The “most important changes we can make in law schools, for all clients and lawyers” is to reduce the focus on appellate decisions. Instead, she argues law schools should bring client interaction into the entire law-school curriculum, including the sacrosanct first year.

In this way, students would be better prepared for their work as lawyers, in either hemisphere. Perhaps ultimately this type of reform would begin to erode distinctions between hemispheres as well, although they are very deeply rooted, as the sociologists work has repeatedly showed.

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