That said, I'd like to share two tips that I've come to learn are critical for lawyers, and especially those just starting their practices.
1. Learn to listen. Law graduates spend about seventeen years in formal education. Much of that time is spent listening to someone else. When we finally graduate, in an almost boomerang-like way, we start sharing everything we've learned over those years. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the position of being the expert. We provide advice to people. As time goes on, we become entrenched in the idea that we must have the answer to every conceiveable question that client's bring our way. Consciously or unconsciously, we convince ourselves that if we don't somehow come up with an answer, we have somehow failed as lawyers.
The truth is, however, much more complicated. We certainly are required to have minimal education, knowledge and skill in order to be granted the privilege of practicing law. And to some extent, most of us have sufficient knowledge to field the majority of questions that come our way. However, as any great lawyer knows, the only way to really understand a client's situation is to ask questions. These lawyers first focus on understanding, and then to be understood. They have the courage to listen and ask questions- plenty of them. They don't fear that they will somehow be viewed as inferior because they intuitively know that relentless investigation through inquiry will ultimately lead to better legal advice.
One of the worst sins a law student can commit is "conclusory" thinking. Essentially, this means jumping to a conclusion that may not legitimately be supported by facts and assumptions within an argument. Jumping to a conclusion about a legal issue without properly investigating is the same thing. And the best way to investigate is to begin with a "help me understand" attitude. Instead of itching to pull the legal advice trigger, take the time to listen to your client, no matter how many times you have faced a similar legal issue. You might be surprised at what you learn.
2. When asked the time, don't tell them how to build the watch. It typically starts with a glazed look in the clients eyes. Or it may take the form of a look that says "what in the world are you talking about and why are you telling me it?" These looks tell me I've inadvertently crossed over from providing legal advice, to the "let me tell you how smart I am" zone. The fact is that most clients want advice. They want you to tell them what they should do, at least in some cases. At minimum, they want you to give them options. Generally, they don't want you to provide them with a great deal of legal support for this advice. You may have just read the coolest case on electronic discovery, but the client simply wants to know whether or not they can delete an email. The point is this: don't fall into the trap of trying to explain too much to a client.
Don't get me wrong. I don't mean this in a condescending way. My advice is pragmatic. Think back to Christmas vacations when you were in law school. You could have gone on forever about Hadley v. Baxendale at the dinner table. You thought it might very well be the most interesting legal case ever decided. But three minutes into your soliloquy, you realized that you might be the only member of your family, and person on your block for that matter, who felt this way. Similarly, your clients may not share your interest in intricate and fascinating legal developments.
And this, by the way, is where tip #1 and tip #2 intersect. If you begin to listen to your clients and trying to empathize, you are more likely to ascertain their appetite for knowing how to build the watch. A busy executive, for example, may give countless clues that you need to provide simple advice without a lot of explanation. An overwrought client, grieving at the loss of a loved one might not have a lot of appetite for the failings of their loved one's last will and testament. And although we have an obligation to provide the best possible legal advice, we can also further the profession by doing so in an empathetic and caring way.
I wish you the best in your legal studies and practice.