GP MENTOR: The Little Girl in the White Linen Dress

Vol. 31 No. 4

By

Kenneth J. Ashman is a principal of Ashman Law Offices, LLC (ALO), a Chicago-based business law and litigation boutique. A frequent speaker and author, he has been named one of “Chicago’s Top-Rated Lawyers,” and a “Super Lawyer,” along with earning a perfect 10.0 rating from Avvo and an “AV-Preeminent” rating from Martindale-Hubble. ALO concentrates its practice in business litigation, intellectual property, and corporate transactions.

There is a tendency in all of us to model our behavior on those we admire, and, for some of us, even copy their style. The best imitators get away with it, mostly because they are able to adopt the new style as their own. It fails when we are self-conscious in taking on the traits of another, asking ourselves what our mentor might do or how so-and-so might handle things. There is a fine balance between learning from others while maintaining a strong sense of self, and losing oneself in the character of another.

I am an actor. I am a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, a career I pursued 30 years ago before going to law school and stopped short mainly by a lack of talent. I did learn a lot in acting school, however. I learned, for example, that each person has emotional limits: Someone who can play a strong character might have difficulty showing vulnerability, and someone who can easily cry might have difficulty showing strength.

One evening during law school, I was driving a friend home. Like me, he had pursued acting before going back to school. He bragged that he could cry on the spot, and I confessed that I had trouble crying in real life, to say nothing of the make-believe. After a minute of concentration, his eyes welled, and he was in tears, just like that. I then challenged him to play a strong character.

I asked him to envision, on the sidewalk near where we had parked, a small, five-year-old girl, blonde hair, wearing a white linen dress. She is barefoot and carrying a teddy bear. I asked him to imagine that there was a bad guy running down the sidewalk toward the girl, to harm her, and that he stood between the bad guy and the girl. I asked my friend to stand up to that bad guy and tell him, in no uncertain terms, that there is no way that he is going to harm that girl, and that he would die before he let any harm come to her. Try as he might, my friend could not muster the strength to put the bad guy in his place.

I have come to understand over the years that the little girl in the white linen dress is our client. And the bad guy is everyone else trying to harm her. It is our job, as lawyers, to protect that little girl, no matter what, and to never give up. This is our charge. It manifests itself in different ways, from telling a judge in a crowded courtroom full of onlookers that a ruling is wrong, to forcing a cornered deponent to answer an uncomfortable question, to ensuring that indemnity provisions in a contract are fair and balanced. One must fight the nerves and self-consciousness—the focus on oneself—and disregard the intimidation to do what it takes to protect the client. When done right, it will be natural, honest, believable, and persuasive.

The key, though, is to be yourself. The way I might go about protecting the client, my level of aggressiveness or acquiescence, will differ from yours. Gerry Spence, the famed Wyoming trial attorney, has a soft, folksy way about him, but someone from New York might be more brash. It really doesn’t matter how the role is played in the end, as long as the attorney remains focused on protecting the client and refuses to give way to the fear of performance. If you can keep forefront that your job is akin to protecting a little girl in a white linen dress, you should have no problem being an effective advocate for your client.

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