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Best Lawyers vs. Best Lawyering: When Listening Is Better Than Having the Answer

2.18.20

Cal called the first week of November and asked if we could meet at Starbucks.

“Sure thing,” I said, without hesitation.

Now, you have to understand two things about Cal’s call. First, I had never been to Starbucks in my life. (No joke!) And Cal knew this. Second, Cal — which isn’t his real name, of course — doesn’t drink coffee. And I knew this. That’s how well I try to get to know my clients. Which is precisely why I responded so quickly to his call.

I had last seen Cal and his wife Allison (not her real name, either) about two years ago. It was early evening. We met in a strip mall parking lot in Charlotte. Not the most austere place to close out a case. There were people running around us, going to dinner, shopping — people being normal. In hindsight, this is all Cal and Allison wanted. Not lawyers offices. Not depositions. They didn’t want their case commemorated in a list of glorious verdicts and settlements in Lawyers Weekly or on some website. They wanted back to normal. Or as close to it as they could get. Cal’s last question in the parking lot that evening said it all: “Does it ever get easier?”

Three years before, a truck driver ran a red light. Of all the cars that could have been right there seven seconds after the light turned, the car that happened to pull out into the crossway had a nursing student in it. She had just paid her college tuition and was on the way to her job as a nanny for an autistic child. It could have been any one of us right there that day. But this time, it was Cal and Allison’s daughter.

Now, we can all agree on one thing: Law school failed to teach us the answer to, “Does it ever get easier?”  In fact, not even our mother tongue prepares us for moments like this. In English, we have words for people who lose parents (orphans). We have words for people who lose spouses (widows and widowers). Even after our language has evolved for ages, though, we cannot come up with a word to mean “someone who loses a child.”  Emotionally, we just can’t go there. We can’t even name it.

But summoning the strength to be there for a client in a moment when you don’t have the answer, that’s the difference between “best lawyers” and “best lawyering.” As I write this, I’m staring at a black picture frame on the floor. It’s one of many frames for many accolades that lean like dominoes against the base of my office wall. The certificate framed inside says “Best Lawyers” and — trust me — I’m skeptical. These honors are worthy, no doubt, but they are not our end game. Our own stories don’t fit in frames, on pieces of paper, or on walls. They’re out there in the lives we touch as trial lawyers.

Our work as trial lawyers helps others bounce back as best they can, both inside and outside the courtroom. We have to remember both of these parts.

Which brings us back to Starbucks. We sat there. Cal’s holding his hot chocolate and I’ve got my cup of some Italian-sounding stuff that doesn’t sound like “coffee,” talking about families and work and common struggles we’d have over the holidays. Cal had called right before Thanksgiving, when one empty chair would stand out at the dinner table, and this was one of the reasons he reached out. Allison was holding up as best she could. She had found her support in other parents who also lost children, and she reaches out to yet others who experience this isolation. There’s something in reciprocity that helps us both heal. Cal and I wished each others’ families a good holidays as we left Starbucks, and that’s when it hit me.

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