The Brief Fall 1995
The View From the Chair
Walter H. Beckham III
If you were not able to attend the ABA Annual Meeting this past summer in Chicago, you missed a lot of fun and a stimulating time in the Windy City. Under the guidance of Thomas S. Brown of Philadelphia, TIPS put G. Gordon Liddy, convicted Watergate felon turned conservative radio talk show host, on mock trial for allegedly encouraging a listener through his show to commit an assault. For more than two hours, Liddy held forth with the man playing prosecutor, Houston lawyer Joseph D. Jamail, the winner of the largest jury verdict in U.S. history in the Pennzoil v. Texaco case. Liddy's defense was presented by current DRI president and South Carolina corporate lawyer Stephen G. Morrison. He argued that the First Amendment protected Liddy's use of "reasonable political speech."
Another highlight of the convention was the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Awards Luncheon. Started in 1991, this luncheon is sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and is held to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women lawyers. One of this year's award recipients, Mahala Ashley Dickerson, presently of Anchorage, Alaska, and the first African-American woman admitted to the Alabama State Bar (in 1948), shared the sound yet simple advice she received when she began to practice law. It continues to be the guiding beacon for her professional life: "Do right and be friendly, and you'll always be busy." These simple watchwords can be the ingredients for all of our success.
We communicate among ourselves as lawyers countless times each day because communication is essential to the effective practice of law. We must make an effort to be friendlier in these communications with each other. We also need to be friendlier and communicate more often with our clients, but too often our efforts can best be described by the famous words of the prison warden in the movie Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."
Ironically, one of the findings of the 1992 ABA survey of the public's view of lawyers is that the more contact a person has with a lawyer, the more likely that person is to feel negative about our profession. And yet the most common complaint is that we lawyers won't return telephone calls.
How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction? It reminds me of Dave Barry's apocryphal (one hopes) description of his wife's accident on the ski slopes. It wasn't the fall that hurt her, says Dave, but the avalanche of cards thrown at her by lawyers passing overhead on lifts. Clearly the answer is not this form of communication!
The true answer, of course, is that contact does not equal communication. Contact occurs any time a client interacts with the legal system, and frequently this occurs under circumstances that are stressful in and of themselves. Contact also occurs every time the public is subjected to lawyer advertising in its many (and frequently tasteless) forms.
Communication, on the other hand, requires the active involvement of both parties and presupposes an exchange of some kind. In many ways, the content of the communication is not so important as the act of communication itself. Malpractice carriers will tell you that most claims are the result of failure to keep the client informed and involved. In my own experience, I find that clients will forgive almost anything except indifference. And few things create the perception of indifference more than the failure to communicate.
Indifference and the attendant loss of a caring "bedside manner" has unquestionably contributed to the current negative perception of our profession by the public. The frustration is that it is such a simple problem to address! Copy your clients with all important correspondence and pleadings, and either return their calls within twenty-four hours or let them know by message when they will be able to speak with you. (I have a lawyer friend who, when faced with a stack of telephone messages that seems overwhelming, arranges them in reverse order of his desire to return them, and then returns them in that reverse order. Once the most difficult calls are made, the rest are easy.)
There certainly are other important issues of public perception that our profession must confront, but being friendly and communicating frequently with our clients are things we can each do something about in our daily practice. The impact of this one small change can be powerful. Effective and empathetic communication not only is empowering to us as lawyers, but more importantly, it also is empowering to our clients.