January 01, 2017

The Best Things I Learned from Other Lawyers

My name is Jeff Tolman. I have practiced in Poulsbo, Washington, a beautiful Norwegian town west of Seattle, for 38 years.

The best law professor, and life professor, I ever had was not a lawyer. It was David Johnson, a journalist with The Lewiston Morning Tribune, a daily newspaper in Lewiston, Idaho. In the early 1970s Mr. Johnson began writing a Friday column about randomly selected local citizens called "Everyone Has a Story." We lived in nearby Asotin, Wash., and I read with interest every Friday column. Johnson’s theory was that every person has an interesting tale if you spend time with them and ask the right questions. That was quite true from my perspective as I consumed each of the columns.

When I began my law practice I set aside a few minutes after each client’s business was done - yes, being sure to tell them the billable clock was off - to learn their story. Those exchanges have brightened both my personal and professional life. Within the last couple of years I have learned my clients have volcanoes named after them, were a multiple world pigeon-breeding champion, the step-parent of an Oscar winner.

In the months to come I hope to share with the readers the wisdom and experiences of lawyers whose lives have crossed mine and those I select randomly. A lawyer who showed me what professional courtesy really means. A Laramie, Wyoming, lawyer who, before the internet, created a funny response to another lawyer called at the time "The pot shot heard around the world." A lawyer who found out his big firm didn’t have much of a sense of humor when, at the birth of a senior partner’s child, he sent a facetious note denying any responsibility. Lawyers who work in small firms and big firms throughout the nation and those now retired. Lawyers are interesting people. We have broad, varied experiences with clients from all walks of life. A good lawyer can make going to the bathroom an adventure story. I absolutely enjoy lawyers and hope over the upcoming months you will, too.

My first contact with a lawyer, as a lawyer, was in the fall of 1977. I had a couple of thousand dollars in my pocket from my sawmill job and, unfortunately, was unencumbered by any loving, deep relationship. I decided to look around America for the perfect small town to practice law. Driving across Montana I was informed I had passed the Washington Bar Exam. I was a lawyer! The next day I stopped to see my grandmother, Anna Mae Simonson, in Worland, Wyoming. As it happened she was, the next day, seeing Bill Shelledy to update her estate planning documents. I knew Bill a bit from the 14 years I, and his family, lived in Greybull, Wyoming. Bill’s sister, Ann, was a year older than me.

Now that I was a lawyer, Grandma asked me to accompany her to the appointment. Bill warmly congratulated me and welcomed me to the profession. After the discussion about necessary new documents was completed, Grandma asked Bill about his charges. My recollection is that he said, "Anna Mae, Jeff is now a member of our profession. I am happy to do this as professional courtesy. No charge." Such was my introduction into this great profession.

What a nice introduction into the Bar.

On this first column I leave you with five of the best tips I ever received about our work:

  1. Never take a case that has a value higher than your malpractice limit. If you want to take a case worth $5 million dollars. Great. Get $5 million in coverage.
  2. There is one purpose, and one purpose only, for the initial consultation with a new client: to discover their expectations and see if you can meet or exceed those expectations. If so, take the case. If not, decline the case. It is better to not have an individual client than one telling everyone in the community you are a bad lawyer.
  3. Most people don’t know what lawyers do, what lawyers want, what lawyers charge. One of your tasks is to educate new clients in these areas.
  4. Most accounts receivable are self-inflicted wounds. If a client isn’t paying you (except if you are appointed in a criminal case) withdraw and let another lawyer try and collect their fees from the non-payer.
  5. Finally, returning phone calls should not be discretionary. The client is your boss. Anyone who does not call their boss back should be fired. Including you.

I hope you enjoy the column over the months to come.