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Litigation Journal

Fall 2022 | Work

America the Client!

Daniel Warren Van Horn


  • The vast majority of Americans today report that they believe the country is on the "wrong track."
  • Lawyers, above all other professionals, have skills that are uniquely suited to the challenge of our time.
  • Lawyers can educate society about the strengths and weaknesses of all manner of positions and arguments.
America the Client!

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The work of all our lifetimes may be representing the clients most in need: America, our democracy, and our system of justice! There is a dire need to communicate better and understand each other more. Lawyers are uniquely suited for that work.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Dick the Butcher delivers a memorable and often misunderstood line. He says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The character was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade. The rebels believed that if they disturbed law and order, Cade could become king. Thus, the plan to first “kill all the lawyers” was really a compliment to the work of lawyers in making just, fair, and equitable societies.

Lawyers Are Essential to Society

What was true in the time of Shakespeare’s Henry VI is still true today. Lawyers are incredibly vital to the work of building a just, fair, and equitable society.

It seems that while there are wildly divergent views as to what a just, fair, and equitable society looks like, the vast majority of Americans today report that they believe the country is on the “wrong track.” That is true whether the respondents report being liberal, independent, or conservative. Perhaps even worse, we seem to be Balkanizing into camps that do not communicate with each other and instead develop echo chambers that reinforce what each is predisposed to believe and reject what each is predisposed to reject. We are no longer talking with each other to understand. We are talking at each other to “win.” Worse yet, we are allowing opposing groups to be demonized—for example, in the context of the current debate around abortion, calling someone who is pro-choice “anti-life” or someone who is pro-life “anti-woman.” Labels in general are usually not that helpful in bridging divides and often drive us farther apart.

The solution to this challenge is more lawyers. Yes, you read that correctly. The solution is more lawyers dedicated to building a more perfect union, to better communication, and to bringing people together.

Lawyers, above all other professionals, have skills that are uniquely suited to the challenge of our time. From the very first weeks of law school, we are taught to analyze the arguments of an opposing party to understand both their strengths and weaknesses. We learn how to make complicated things simpler. We can humanize a “client” or an “opponent.” We regularly mediate disputes. We often communicate difficult information and help formulate a plan to address the challenge. Many of the skills that make us effective lawyers are not about advocacy alone. They are also about dealmaking—about bridging divides.

We often fail to remember that we are more than advocates for a position or a client. Yes, we have an ethical duty to zealously advocate for clients. But we also have duties of candor and fairness to opposing parties and the courts. We have an ethical duty to the system in which we operate. What good is it for any one client if we win yet the system fails? The next time that a client needs help, the system will not be there. We can and must serve as both the glue and the grease that make our society, our democracy, and our justice system work.

Imagine if we had more lawyers dedicated to helping educate society as to the strengths and weaknesses of all manner of positions and arguments. What if we had more lawyers who had the trust of their communities because they were seen as honest brokers and not just advocates? What if we had more lawyers acting as mediators of civil discourse? What if we had more lawyers who could humanize those on various sides of debates so that we could find our common humanity and see past our differences? Imagine the difference that lawyers could and must make if we were only more engaged in this work.

Lawyers Need to Get Involved

It is easy to talk about this in the abstract. What does this mean in practice? It means that we need to look for situations to get involved and do the work that lawyers do. Yes, that might be representing a client challenging a law or a specific client in a specific case. It might mean advocating for legislative change. But there is a broader need. Lawyers often serve on the boards of companies, charities, and civic groups. In those roles, we must educate and push for civil discourse. We have to inform those with whom we serve of the merits of not only “our” position but the positions of those who may not agree with us. We have to humanize those who are different from us.

Another way that we can take on this important work is to engage in social settings when it would be easier to disengage. We all have that opportunity at social gatherings to weigh in on the topic of conversation. When we are on social media, we have the opportunity to elevate the discourse. All too often, we go silent or walk away, rather than engage.

None of this will be easy. No one wants to be “on” all the time. Yet, we cannot be “off” as much as we have been as a profession. Society likes to make fun of lawyers, but when there is trouble, they come to us every time.

First, we need to build trust. That starts with building relationships with as many people as possible—not just people who agree with us. It starts with seeking to understand others—especially those with whom we do not agree. Next, we need to be educated. When we speak on an issue, those who hear what we say need to know that we have done our homework and will fairly represent the merits of all sides. Finally, we need to find ways to bridge gaps and bring people together. It is much more difficult to hate when we know or understand the person on the other side.

Some may read this and think that I am advocating for lawyers to get involved only or primarily in more liberal causes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I want conservatives, independents, and liberals to become engaged in this work. Our client, America, demands nothing less. Just understand that what one side believes is progress may be seen as a setback by others. The very best outcomes in most cases over the course of my career had some compromise element. We need to seek the larger win and understand that is sowing the seeds for the future.

We live in a pluralistic society where it will likely be difficult to achieve complete agreement about anything. The work of our lives is not seeking complete victory on any issue; rather, it is seeking a sustainable peace in which most people get a lot of what they want but not everything. If we approach issues trying to understand the other side and see the goodness in others, our society will benefit.

This is the work that lawyers must do. There are no other professions trained the way we are trained. No one else has the skills we have. If not us, then who?

Understanding the “why” of our work is critical to career happiness. What we do is hard enough. If we are practicing law just to make a living, then we have missed out on a great deal of happiness and career satisfaction. It feels great to be part of something greater than ourselves. It feels good to work for the greater good. It feels good to work to bridge gaps and bring people together. We are called to greatness and to see and bring out the greatness in others.

America is still the greatest country on Earth, but America, our democracy, and our system of justice are clients that are in desperate need of our help. This is the work of our lifetime. It is difficult work. It is also incredibly rewarding. Let’s recommit to the work and leave a better society than the one we inherited.