I think the police officer enjoyed stopping my Volkswagen bug in the parking lot of Independence High School just as my classmates were arriving for school. With his blue lights flashing, the officer sashayed to my car and handed me a ticket for speeding, running a stop sign and, for good measure, reckless driving. Students rubbernecked to see what dangerous criminal had been apprehended. I was indignant because I was innocent, of course.
My father hired George Miller’s uncle (also George Miller) to represent me in traffic court. The case was called for trial on a Friday afternoon in July. At that time traffic court was held in the courtroom 23 of the old courthouse (now thrice removed). It was hot. There was no air conditioning. The courtroom was filled with “innocent” people waiting for their justice.
I recall that when the judge returned from an afternoon break, he had soaked through his robes. Wiping his brow, he looked over the 15 or so of us left on the docket. He then asked, “How many of you want to plead not guilty?” We all raised our hands. “Okay,” he said, you are all not guilty.” And with the proclamation, he left the bench. Mr. Miller smiled, came over to me and said, “That will be $100.” It was at that moment, that I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.
I mean, how easy could it be? You just go to court with the client, you don’t have to say anything and people pay you money. Boy, was I wrong. I have now been practicing for almost 40 years. Boy, was I ever wrong.
Practicing law is hard. It means accepting the burdens of others while navigating your own personal and professional burdens. In 2016, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association published a survey that found that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers, 28% suffer from some level of depression and 19% struggle with anxiety.
Over the years, I have had a chance to tutor some new attorneys as they began their career, including my current law partners, Will DeVore and Derek Adler. I gave them a few suggestions that have bode well for me over the years.
1. Know the opposing attorney on a personal level. Personalize your communications with opposing counsel, not as a strategy, but because it is the right thing to do. It will ease your stress and it will ease their stress. A personal connection with opposing counsel humanizes what we do for a living.
In 1993, I was asked to defend a young man who was one of three teenagers being tried for the capital murder of a police officer. District attorney (later Superior Court Judge) Gentry Caudill was on the other side. The exchanges between us regarding the case had been heated. About four weeks before trial, my father died unexpectedly at the age of 65. A few days after his death, I received a personal handwritten note from Gentry. The note read, “I read about your father’s passing. If we need to move the trial or if I can help in anyway, please reach out to me.” It was a lesson I never forgot. We are human beings first and lawyers second.
2. Say “yes” as much as you can. Whenever possible, say “yes” to a lawyer’s reasonable requests for extensions of time and other such matters. Right out of law school, I went to work for Lou Trosch, Sr. The first week of work, Lou asked me to shadow Reginald “Lee” Yates, III. Lee specialized in collections work. I sat across his desk as Lee explained the basics of litigation. Our conversation was interrupted by a phone call, which Lee took. I could hear Lee say into the phone, “Just a minute,” as he placed the call on hold. He then pulled out a black three-ring notebook and scanned down a list of names. Back to the phone, Lee said, “Sure, no problem, take whatever time you need to prepare a response,” and he hung up the phone. He must have seen my puzzled look because Lee explained, “Over my career I have kept a list of every attorney who screwed me or refused to give me an extension of time. He was not on the list.” Say “yes” as much as you can.
3. Return all calls – THE SAME DAY. Yes, this is hard to do. But, having served on our Grievance Committee for many years, and now as a Commissioner on the Disciplinary Hearing Commission for the State Bar, I can tell you that the number one complaint I hear about attorneys is their lack of communication with their clients and with other attorneys. Professionalism in the eyes of a client is often measured by our responsiveness. I have certainly lost my share of cases, but I have always tried to prepare my client for all possible outcomes by keeping them informed at every step of the process. Only an informed client can make reasoned decisions about their legal issues. Rule 1.4 of our Rules of Professional Conduct requires us to “promptly inform the client” of matters and to “keep the client reasonably informed.”
4. Remember the other side is just trying to do their best for his or her client. Our own filmmaker, author and Mecklenburg County attorney, Robert Whitlow, once wrote, “Lawyers are like professional wrestlers. They pretend to get mad and fight, but they socialize after a trial is over.” Some of my most respected legal friends are those with whom we have paired off as adversaries. My non-lawyer friends cannot understand these relationships. It is a unique aspect of our profession. It goes back to my earlier statement; we are human beings first and lawyers second.
Lawyering is far more difficult than I thought back on that hot July day decades ago, but we can and certainly should strive to make it less difficult for each other.