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Sitting in the client’s chair

By James O. Heiting
President, State Bar of California

James O. Heiting

Why did you become a lawyer? I am always intrigued to hear the answer to that question.

As long as I can remember thinking about lawyers, I have been in awe of attorneys and judges: their intelligence, knowledge, maturity, intensity; the way they carry themselves; the power they have; the responsibility they bear; the ways they can and do affect lives. They carry the very weight of our society, and all its components, in their analysis, advocacy and reasoning.

But I had no reason to think about lawyers as a child. My dad was a bookkeeper and income tax consultant. My mother was a wife, a mom and Cub Scout den mother. I grew up in a very quiet and rural atmosphere and had no need or contact with any attorney. I had no realization that my grandfather, an engineer by education and a rare earths prospector by trade, had been “claim jumped” on a major claim and major litigation ensued (the mine is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange).

I wanted to be a doctor. I was fascinated by the human body and its workings. I planned to go into medicine . . . until I learned I was color-blind and, for a variety of reasons, abandoned the idea of becoming a physician.

I went to college, and, now without a specific goal, majored in business and accounting. I was without direction and trying to get excited again about education when fate stepped in.

At that point in time, something came up that pointed to the need for a lawyer. We hired one with an excellent reputation. We decided we needed that, as it felt as if our entire lives and future hung in the balance, we were in his hands and dependent solely on his skills.

He met with us and spoke of himself. He seemed interested — in a somewhat distant way — with our plight. I remember feeling reassured yet uneasy, somehow.

During the course of representation, I remember feeling totally in the dark — not knowing or understanding what was happening, afraid of how this might come out — without explanation from the lawyer. I remember that he communicated much more fully, and in a much friendlier way (laughing, arm on shoulder, etc.), with the opposing lawyer than he did with us. I became very uncomfortable.

That is when my life changed, and my goal of becoming a lawyer (“I can do a better job than this. I will remember not to treat people this way”) crystallized. His bad example became my reason for becoming a lawyer. (The case came out OK, by the way).

Now, I cannot say that I always do a better job or that I always communicate effectively with my clients. Sometimes I forget this lesson. Sometimes a client has to remind me. I must remember sitting in the client’s chair. Each one of us should sit in the client’s chair to see how it feels and how we would like to be treated. It becomes obvious that the ideals are service and caring.

Two years ago, as I was awaiting call to a courtroom for jury service, I sat with hundreds of others in a jury assembly room. The room had a very modest supply of magazines to read, but the “babysitter” was the focus of most to pass the time: daytime TV, complete with TV judges deciding “real cases” with sarcasm, witty editorial commentary and quick-draw decisions, and with lawyer advertising at each commercial break. The commercials seemed to promise tons of money for the most modest of injuries. My immediate thought was that defense attorneys can’t be blamed for summarizing that the plaintiff wants to “play the P.I. lottery” by bringing the claim.

I did not have to wonder what my fellow jurors were thinking or how they would react to service on a civil jury involving a personal injury. It was obvious that these cases were to be made of smoke and mirrors by some greedy, slick plaintiff’s lawyer promising a recovery of wheelbarrows filled with money to be paid to a person that really isn’t injured. Are we so naive to believe that judges, mediators and arbitrators are not affected?

The greatest and most determined communication from lawyers to the public at large serves to do extreme harm to the image (and reality) of lawyers and the goal they do. What person exposed to these commercials comes away with greater belief in the law, greater trust in lawyers, greater respect for our system?

Display of power, ego and greed are not lofty ideals. Those “qualities” may come later, or may be a part of why a person wants to become a lawyer. I hope not. While these things may serve one financially, they will bankrupt the spirit and soul. They tarnish the image of all lawyers and fuel jokes, sarcasm and attack by commentators and politicians. 

David Hall — “Justice is a journey and not a destination” — summarized, “[Y]ou create . . . justice not only through your legal skills but also through your values, integrity and care. Every interaction you have with a client or the community is an opportunity to plant seeds of change, empowerment and love. The people you serve are in need of lawyers, who care enough about them to not only take their case, but to embrace their lives, and to help them transform their circumstances. The holistic delivery of legal services is more than a new age slogan; it is a fundamental description of how law must be practiced.”

Our leadership exists in service to others. Every effort makes a difference. Let’s go out and do some good.

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