GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006

Lessons on the Road to Law School

It was the first day of fifth grade, and it seemed that the drudgery I had known as fourth grade was about to begin again. I can remember walking into the classroom that first day and seeing the announcement in big letters written in bright yellow chalk on the board at the front of the class: ELECTIVES. I sat there and grinned. Now we’re talking. The idea that I would have some minimal amount of control over my otherwise preordained academic fate made me feel almost giddy.

I quickly scanned the choices: Physics, Chemistry, Russian History, . . . Law. LAW . . . hmmmm . . . my eyes lit up. I certainly had watched enough Perry Mason to know that this was exciting stuff. I searched for the sign-up sheets and gleefully printed my name on the first line.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years later that I enrolled in a four-year, evening law school. While I attended law school, I worked full-time running a small business and taking care of two children. I believe that becoming a lawyer in my 40s helped me be a far better lawyer than I ever would have been in my 20s. I know that the countless experiences I had along the way to my legal career deepened my understanding of human behavior, including my own. I had several official careers before I became a lawyer (my experiences parenting two children would provide more than sufficient material for another article). Each career brought valuable lessons and insights for the practice of law.

Fresh Out of Academia: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

I graduated from U.C. Berkeley at the age of 20 with a B.A. in sociology and a minor in psychology. It quickly became evident that my degree alone was insufficient to land me an appropriately influential job in any field of interest.

I toyed with the idea of going to law school at that time, but I ultimately passed. My quasi-socialist U.C. Berkeley perspective made the idea of becoming part of the working class somehow romantic, and frankly, I’d had enough of formal education. This decision was further reinforced by my personal economic circumstance, which necessitated that I join the workforce immediately.

I embarked on a quest to find work commensurate with my lofty Cal degree, and when I could find none, I took a job as a part-time teller at a local savings and loan. For the next five years, I worked my way up the ranks from part-time teller, to internal auditor, and finally to branch operations manager.

The Power of Empathy

Working in various banking capacities taught me some interesting lessons about people and their money. When the bank’s customers perceived that even the slightest error had been made with regard to their personal fortunes, they could be irrational, difficult, and myopic in their zeal to place blame and obtain an immediate remedy. This often precipitated an emotional response (on both sides of the teller window) out of all proportion to the gravity of the situation. Dealing with such situations on a daily basis, I quickly learned the value of empathy and the power it provided for me to rise above my own emotional responses. Once I understood and acknowledged the customers’ point of view, I was far better prepared not only to create a workable solution to the problem, but also to assure the customers that they had been heard. Empathy was the key to calming even the most nervous investors.

This lesson proved invaluable to the practice of law. In my limited career as a civil litigator before I became immersed in family law, I worked hard to establish empathy with any witness I deposed. I was initially surprised by how readily witnesses for the other side were willing to offer information. Most people simply like to talk about themselves. An empathetic, understated lawyer who provides the right opening for a willing speaker may be well rewarded with helpful information from that individual, whether it is a witness, an opposing party, or another attorney.

I am currently a family law attorney and mediator. In both capacities, I interact with clients who often suffer profound sadness, deep anger and resentment, and immense trepidation over their future. These emotions must be recognized, acknowledged, and managed.

Unfortunately, the ability to empathize appears to be underrated by many attorneys.

Into the Comfort Zone

As a bank manager, I observed that people frequently came into the branches where I worked for reasons that had nothing to do with their immediate financial needs. I learned that people often seek out places of business—like banks—purely for social reasons. Although improved technology has curbed the use of the local bank branch as a meeting place, historically, banks provide inviting lobbies, comfortable furniture, and food to make their customers feel at home. People are simply more receptive to any environment that meets their physical and emotional needs.

I have been to many law offices. Most impress me as being fairly sterile environments that make no excuses for their emotional emptiness. I think that lawyers might be wise to consider the possible advantages of creating an atmosphere that is more inviting emotionally, however that might be accomplished.

I keep a collection of stuffed animals in my office. I began this tradition because I occasionally have a need to talk to children in my cases. But I’ve noticed that the animals have a calming effect on adults, too. I understand that some attorneys may wish to present an image to their prospective clientele of invincibility and capacity for intimidation, but I believe that it is important to connect with clients on a human level first, particularly for family law attorneys.

I have also learned that when I want to make people feel the most comfortable, I provide some kind of food (preferably food that can be eaten in an inconspicuous way). There are times during my cases when I meet with opposing counsel and our clients for settlement discussions. Everyone seems to be more relaxed and willing to engage in constructive dialogue when food is present.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

I also worked as an internal auditor for the bank. This type of work required me to think more tangentially and probe below the surface; frequently, things were not as they appeared to be. I would travel to different branches and arrive before the staff to catch them off guard. Occasionally, I would find a discrepancy in a teller’s cash or the vault’s cash. However, I learned that a discrepancy in and of itself did not necessarily imply the obvious—theft.

I investigated all possibilities until I was reasonably sure I had discovered the truth. The process of investigation involved interviewing anyone with a shortage in the cash under their control. People could come up with the most creative and implausible reasons for the missing cash. Uncovering what had actually happened required a strict focus on the facts.

As a lawyer, I have found this approach helpful when analyzing my client’s own stories and those from the other side. My clients share with me their subjective recitations and usually insist that I take immediate legal action. Although it is tempting to accept a client’s emotional plea, it is usually a major mistake. Moving forward with a legal strategy based on an uncorroborated story will generally result in a loss of credibility for your client and for you.

My clients’ stories provide only the starting point for my investigations. I think about the ways that people at the bank would act when they were caught in the auditing process, and it helps me maintain an objective balance when I hear the tales that my clients tell me. I consider all other possible explanations, any independent corroboration, and the likelihood of my clients’ truthfulness. I think about my clients’ affect when telling their stories—how they hold their head, where they direct their eyes, how often they look away, the rhythm of their speech, whether they move their hands or keep them still. Then I try to imagine the case from the other party’s perspective.

Knowing When to Say When

My banking career ended after a series of armed robberies. I had been assigned to a branch in a neighborhood that was notorious for repeated robberies. Because of this, I became vigilant in monitoring my working environment. I looked up from my desk with regularity and made mental notes about everyone in the bank, their physical characteristics, their behavior, and their movements. I trained myself to stay alert and be sensitive to the most subtle inconsistencies in behaviors.

One day as I surveyed the branch, I noticed a guy standing at a new teller’s window, leaning into her in an intimate way. Something about the way he stood, the way he leaned, and how he looked affected me in a visceral way. Instantly, I knew there was a problem. I moved my left hand slowly to the button under my desk that alerted the police department. With my right hand I began to list his physical characteristics. As I was estimating his height, out came what looked like a sawed-off shotgun of some kind. At that moment, everything stopped. The man shoved the weapon within inches of the teller’s face and demanded her money. She managed somehow to get the bills from her drawer even though she was shaking badly. The man stuffed the bills into his jacket, looked around quickly, and then ran out the side door of the bank into the parking lot. I was incensed by his callous violence. Without considering the consequences, I ran out after him. The police had already cordoned off the parking lot, and the armed gunman was arrested without an incident. When things settled down, the officer in charge told me that I was insane to run into the parking lot after the gunman. Knowing he was right, I decided it was time for me to move on to a new career.

This experience provides me with a constant reminder that all decisions have consequences, some of which may be life threatening. Should the moment ever come when my law practice becomes more detrimental to my health and sanity than it is beneficial, I trust I will know it’s time to make a quick and graceful exit.

And Now for Something Completely Different: Life in the Rag Trade

After my illustrious career in banking, I decided to try something different. For some time, I had been toying with the idea of opening my own clothing store. The day after the robbery, I gave my notice to the bank and took a huge cut in pay to begin an informal “apprenticeship” with the owner/operator of a chain of women’s clothing stores in the Bay area. After six months learning the ropes, I opened my own shop in North Berkeley.

The Emotional Component of Sales

The clothing trade involves buying merchandise—the art of selecting particular items at a price and degree of quality that can be resold at a profit. For 20 years, I purchased an assortment of clothing in various colors and designs and carefully monitored the reactions of customers in my quest to stay in business. Until I began running my little shop, I had never really considered the powerful way that both color and design can impact people.

It soon became clear to me that my customers (mostly women) believed deeply that they presented a different image to the world based on what they were wearing. They were very emotionally connected to their clothing—the way it looked and especially the way it felt. It is a connection that occurs outside the intellectual realm, yet can be just as important as a thoughtful analysis.

Translating this lesson to my law practice was not as difficult as you might think. The practice of law incorporates both color and design in many different ways. The colors in our offices affect not only our moods, but our clients’ moods. The colors we wear every day project an image about who we are and what we are about. The simple act of wearing a bright color in a courtroom may influence people in either a positive or negative way, but there is no doubt that it captures their attention. And adding color to an exhibit, or creating a color presentation for a jury, may do more to keep the audience awake than any amount of persuasive talk.

Our written documents are also affected by color and design. The subtleties of fonts, type size, and spacing can be significant when we really want a judge to pay attention to what we have written. And adding intermittent spots of color to an otherwise drab black-and-white document may keep a reader’s interest in ways attorneys may not have considered.

Perception Is Reality (or Is It?)

One day a woman wandered in to my shop. She looked fairly average in height and size. She looked around and selected some items to try on. She disappeared with her selections into the back part of the shop where the dressing rooms and mirrors were. After a while, she called me to the back to comment on her choices. I reacted with tactful honesty and told her that she had selected items that were clearly too big for her and did little to flatter an otherwise appealing physique. She looked at me reflectively through the mirror in front of her and told me that she thought everything fit fairly well. At some point it occurred to me to ask if she had recently lost a lot of weight. She confided that she had lost more than 100 pounds but had trouble seeing herself any differently. Although she clearly understood on a cognitive level that she was no longer obese, emotionally she had trouble integrating that reality. She genuinely could not see herself as an objective onlooker might. She had become a prisoner of her distorted perceptions and saw herself not as she was, but as an image of what she thought she was. Over the decades it became clear to me that my customers and I often saw different things while looking from the same vantage point.

Knowing that individuals perceive themselves and their surroundings in vastly different ways is a lesson that lawyers must continually remember. Conflicts, especially family law conflicts, can sometimes be reduced to a mere difference in perception. When this happens, identifying and addressing that difference is key to a resolution of the conflict.

Diversity of Challenges: Keeping It Fresh

When I initially opened my shop, I was confronted with numerous challenges. Despite the dismal statistics for achieving success in a small business, I enthusiastically became a one-person operation, responsible for buying, merchandising, marketing, accounting, and customer service. This diversity of challenges kept me invigorated for years.

I find the same is true in my law practice. In addition to the constant flow of clients with new and interesting problems to be solved, I have continued to challenge myself by branching out into mediation and collaborative law. I also work hard to maintain a balance between my professional and personal pursuits.

I believe that maintaining an energizing balance between stress and comfort is vital in order to stave off boredom and complacency.

Your Customer as Your Ad Agency

There’s nothing like counting out the till every night to keep you focused on your customers. The diversity of clientele in my shop prepared me well to deal with the many kinds of “customers” I have as a lawyer. Lawyers tend to think of their clients as their only customers. However, broadening one’s perspective to include judges, other attorneys, clerks, and employees provides motivation to tend to those relationships with just as much care. Learning to interact constructively and consistently with each of these groups is an important component in the successful practice of law and should not be underestimated.

I ran my business for 20 years without anything other than an occasional advertisement. I took every opportunity, with every individual that walked into my shop, to sell myself along with my goods. I was polite, interested, and helpful without being intrusive. I let my customers know that I was interested in hearing about their retail needs and willing to do everything in my power to fill those needs. Word got around, and I developed a repeat clientele that remained loyal until the day I closed up shop. There is nothing that can compare with word-of-mouth advertising, because there is no one that consumers trust more than someone they know, who has no personal agenda in making recommendations. Lawyers should treat all of their “customers” (including clients, judges, and other attorneys) as a good referral source to build their businesses.

What You Learn Along the Way

There is so much more to being a lawyer than merely passing a test or mimicking the behavior of other lawyers. Law school teaches the rigid constructs on which the practice of law is based, but it does not provide students with the insights into human interactions and motivations that lawyers need to be truly effective.

On my long road to law school, I gained a wealth of valuable, diverse experiences. I believe that by applying those lessons and the insights they brought me, I have become a better lawyer.


Nikki Clark is the managing attorney at the Fremont, California, office of the Law Offices of Shirley D. Jacobs, where she practices family law and mediation. She can be reached at


Back to Top