When I was a young associate in a large law firm, a wise managing partner once said, “do the right thing and the money will follow.” Those words still resonate with me. While all firms experience financial ups and downs, putting ethics first will pay off in the long run. More importantly, they serve as a guidepost for what matters more than anything—our reputations. We forget sometimes that it’s an honor to do what we do for a living. People come to us in their time of need. Sometimes they’ve made their own messes; other times they are the victims of false claims or unfortunate circumstances. Either way, clients put their confidence in us and look to us to guide them to more stable ground.
Principles First: Putting Your Client's Needs before Profit
So what does it mean for a lawyer to “do the right thing?” It means you put the client’s needs before profit. It means you balance every decision—such as filing a motion, going to trial, filing an appeal or engaging in mountains of discovery—against the cost to the client financially and, in some cases, emotionally. Time and again I am dismayed when faced with a motion that has very little legal basis. I cannot imagine that the lawyer filing it believes that he or she will be successful, yet the clock starts to run. Each side rings up thousands of dollars in legal fees that both parties will have to pay. And everyone involved gets stuck going through the motions, literally and figuratively.
Ensuring Clients Understand the Cost-Benefit Analysis of Every Decision
I was taught early on to make sure that your clients fully understand the cost-benefit analysis of every decision before they replenish the retainer and take the next step. When costs and potential outcomes are clear, clients can make sound decisions. A company might decide that it makes financial sense to disengage from litigation and recoup losses elsewhere, and an individual may decide that the emotional toll is not worth the financial gain. If the client decides not to proceed, in the long run, your firm doesn’t really lose money.
Doing the Right Thing Should Be Your Foundation
On the contrary, you earn more from satisfied clients who stay with the firm for other legal matters and refer future clients to the firm. And if the client chooses to proceed (with a trial or motion or whatever the case may be), then you can be confident that the client made a well-informed decision. Doing the right thing is the foundation on which you build your client base, your reputation, and your professional connections.
Sincere Networking: Building Relationships and Being Yourself
Building relationships is an essential part of lawyering. Networking events are so pervasive and important for young lawyers that it can be easy to forget that networking is not an event; it’s a process. Successful networks take years to develop, and they all start with who you are as a person, especially for service-driven industries such as ours. Have you ever been to a networking event where someone you’ve just met shakes your hand, hands you a card, and actually has the nerve to ask you for business? Awful, isn’t it? I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask someone for business. That’s fine, but you have to develop a relationship first. And the best way to do that is by being real, being generous, and paying attention.
Being “real” is simply being yourself. Don’t try too hard to sell yourself. Your competence will speak for itself when substantive issues arise. Your integrity will speak for itself as people get to know you. A networking opportunity is a chance to convey (and appraise) acumen and sincerity. If my clients have a legal issue that I can’t help them with, I want to refer them to someone I know will treat them fairly and respectfully. It’s easy to find a competent lawyer. That’s not enough for me. I want someone who I trust will worry first about doing right by his or her client.
Being generous with referrals is another mark of effective lawyering. Of course, we all go to networking events to build business. But giving business is just as important. It puts your client in good hands, and it’s a great way to get to know a new colleague and decide if you want to build a long-term working relationship with that person. In turn, your colleague will keep you in mind the next time he or she is looking to refer business. If you are not in a position to refer business, look for other opportunities to help fellow lawyers and colleagues, such as extending an invitation to a networking event or offering to jointly present at a speaking engagement.
Successful networking is a process that builds relationships upon trust. Conveying trust can be as simple as giving your undivided attention to the person with whom you are speaking, even when you’d rather be someplace else. We all get trapped in conversations that we don’t want to have, but looking around the room or half-listening is disrespectful and the death knell to any potential relationship. Maintain eye contact, actively listen, and engage in the conversation. I’ve heard it said that people don’t always remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. Stay engaged, and stay present.
Mindful Lawyering: Helping Clients See the Big Picture
Striving to be engaged and present brings us to the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness has lost many of its new-age trappings; there are even mindfulness apps for people on the go. Being attentive and attuned to your surroundings and the people you’re interacting with at a particular moment is at the core of mindfulness, and its benefits extend to making better decisions and maintaining balance when others are losing theirs.
Broaden the View, Narrow the Issues
As lawyers, too often, we get caught up in our clients’ emotions and anger. We can’t help them if we go into the abyss with them. Albert Einstein famously noted, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” It’s our job to help clients see the big picture. First, broaden the view. Then, narrow the issues. They will be much clearer.
Have Empathy but Think Clearly
That doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with clients. Indeed, you should have empathy. But when we chime in with their anger and anxiety and further demonize the other party, no one is thinking clearly. Clients come to us for solutions. They are looking for knowledge, confidence, and leadership. I believe that true leadership is bringing out the best in the people around us, including our clients. I’m always amazed when I see an attorney arguing with me as if the issue involved a personal matter between the two of us. I see that as a lack of self-awareness, not zealous representation.
Mindful lawyering means maintaining an awareness of the many factors at play during client interactions, mediation, or trial. When we are able to keep the big picture in mind, we can argue forcefully while being respectful. It is from that position of strength and balance that we can best address the issues our clients are facing. We return the trust granted to us by our clients and colleagues by making effective decisions. Ultimately, mindful lawyering leads us to do the right thing.
Striving to put clients before profit and to be mindful in legal practice will cement your reputation as a trustworthy and effective attorney. Perhaps Warren Buffett said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”