Attorneys 101: The non-attorney perspective

Two and a half years ago I responded to a Craigslist ad looking for a document scanner.  Apparently, this particular law firm wanted to go paperless and was looking for people to help scan all their paperwork.  It was close to Christmas, I was a starving grad student, and I had toyed with the idea of going to law school right after obtaining my Master’s.  It sounded like a good opportunity to make a couple bucks while surveying the landscape of the legal field.  Shortly after I submitted my resume, I got this phone call from this really energetic and dynamic guy, David Gonzalez.  He wanted to know how I went from an Airborne Ranger to a Social Worker.  He must have been impressed with my answer because I’ve seen him almost everyday since then.

Before I started working here, I didn’t know much about lawyers.  I didn’t really have any use for them.  I knew what I had seen on TV , in movies, and heard in jokes .  When I was hired as the Director of Social Work, I prepared myself – very much like I was going to war.  I mean, Attorneys argue for a living.  It was like bringing a spoon to a gun fight.  I prepared my counters to their counters.  I researched facts, data, ethics, policies, and regulations and had it all at arms reach in case anything I said was challenged.  I was careful about what I said around the attorneys and how many details I shared – didn’t want to give any reason to bring attention to myself.  Make no mistake about it; no attorney was going to bully me around.

Then, it happened.  The most unexpected thing occurred.  It was the one thing I was unprepared for.  Nothing.  No bullying.  No cross-examinations.  No arguments (well, there was that one… ).  In my time here, I’ve spent a lot of time around attorneys – our attorneys, prosecutors, other defense attorneys, and judges.  I’ve learned a ton.  It just wasn’t what I expected to learn.

I’ve also had the benefit of observing how non-attorneys interact with attorneys through leading a team of social work and psychology students who rotate through our office on a semester basis.  Every semester, it’s almost always the same scenario.  I have now developed a model that I like to call the Student-Attorney Semester Life Cycle.  The students transition through the following stages of interaction with the attorneys:

  • Stage 1 – Fear
  • Stage 2 – Reverence
  • Stage 3 – Frustration
  • Stage 4 – Frustration
  • Stage 5 – Frustration
  • Stage 6 – Indifference (or as I like to call it, “Whatever, Dude. I’m out of here in 3 weeks anyway.”)

After all this experience, here’s what I’ve learned are the things anyone needs to know if they’re going to hire or work with attorneys:

Many of the stereotypes about attorneys are true. They are skeptical of everything and everyone.  They will “what if” you to death.  They will always bring up worst case scenarios.  They love to play devil’s advocate.  They are always looking for loopholes and backdoors.  They are very non-committal in their strategies.  They are always worried about what other people are thinking – especially other attorneys.

HOWEVER, not everything that attorneys get stereotyped for is their fault. The way that we perceive them and treat them has a lot to do with the way they act.  Take, for example, the way I prepared for my new position as the Director of Social Work.  If things had gone badly, whose fault would it have been?  Mine.  If you’re already defensive and posturing for an argument before you even begin to speak, attorneys will react accordingly – anyone would.  Perception is reality, right?

If it feels like attorneys are always playing a game – it’s because they are.  It’s their job.  They are consistently put in situations in which they have to manipulate, argue, and deceive while knowing that their counterpart is trying to do the same thing.  Half the time, even their clients are working against them. After a while, it just becomes second nature.

Attorneys ARE hard to work with and they’re not great collaborators. They don’t teach that in law school.  They teach you how to thrive in a world of strategy and argument.

Attorneys are always stressed out. They really do have the weight of the world on their shoulders.  Every one of their clients expects them to save the day.  Their case is the most important thing in the world to them at that time.  Attorneys take on a great deal of pressure – all day, everyday.  If an attorney isn’t on the top of their game, their client is the one who’ll suffer the consequence.  Multiply that pressure by the number of clients on the attorney’s caseload and, well… you get the picture.

Above all, there are some very good qualities that are central to most attorneys:

  • Almost all of them got into the law because they wanted to fight the good fight – not just fight.
  • Attorneys gladly take on the pressure involved in their work because they really want to help their clients
  • They’re high achievers and they want people around them to perform at a high standard as well
  • They don’t put themselves on pedestals… but they’ll let you, if you’re so inclined.
  • If they believe in something, they will fight to the death for it

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of needing to hire an attorney, please consider the above when making snap judgments about their character and interactions.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you need to work with an attorney in a interdisciplinary setting, here’s my advice:

  • Be prepared to perform at a high standard and work hard.  They expect it of you and themselves.
  • Start thinking like an attorney
    • When presenting an idea or concept, already have their objections in mind and plan accordingly
    • Be thinking about worst case scenario, backdoors, and loopholes and address it before they do
  • Be the expert in what you do.  When something is a worst case scenario and will probably never happen – tell them that and do not allow them to make decisions based solely on worst case scenarios.
  • If you’re leading a focused or topical discussion with them, use an agenda.  If given the opportunity, they will hijack your meeting.
  • If a decision has to be made, make them commit to an option and document it.
  • Don’t give them any reason not to trust you.  Be very open and transparent.  If they sense that you’re posturing or holding something back, they will go right into attorney-mode.

Hope this helps.

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