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

February 18, 2020   |   Vernon Sumwalt

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.

‘A Hundred Billion Bottles Washed Up on the Shore’

While Allison communed with other parents going through loss, Cal’s therapy was work. We talked about his retiring in two years, what he would do after, which includes managing the foundation he and Allison had set up to provide scholarships for special needs children at summer camps and even college. I guess this was why he wanted to meet. Just to talk through it, and to steel up for the holidays ahead. In a year or two, he’d have to find a therapy other than work.

That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. Right about the time I reached the bottom of that caffeinated, Italian-sounding stuff and we were wishing each other happy holidays: Work is my therapy, too, and this is part of my work, this listening to questions without having the answer. So, maybe I wasn’t there only to help Cal bounce back from his loss. I mean, that was the ostensible reason. But maybe, just maybe, I was there to help myself bounce back, too. Like the protagonist on the island Sting wrote about in “Message in a Bottle,” the old Police tune:

Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw
A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I’m not alone at being alone
A hundred billion castaways looking for a home

Does this truth — this reciprocity — explain who we are as trial lawyers?  What we believe in?  I mentioned in my last column there would always be other cases, other clients, other adventures after loss. A hundred billion castaways out there, reaching for justice.

We all know folks in our ranks who do not survive the daily grind of our work. I’m not being critical. It’s true. Trial lawyering isn’t a good fit for some. One’s career must be consonant with one’s values and skills, or else it’s like listening to a band playing in different keys. Pretty soon things start to sound wrong. But remember Mountain Magic a couple of years ago?  What Roger Dodd called folks like us, who honed trial skills as a hobby in our off-hours?   That’s right, Roger called us “sick bastards.”  This is a compliment for trial lawyers. What makes us sick bastards?  Most likely, it’s our courage to pick up the banner of the underdog and the downtrodden and to carry it forward without pause, because they have a right to claim what is rightfully theirs under our law. It is work for the few, the industrious, the courageous, and — yes — the sick bastards. And we love it.

Why? In this process we call work, we learn something about ourselves. Maybe this is why, when we ask a thousand trial lawyers what they “believe” in or “who trial lawyers are,” we get a thousand different flavors of response. None of us are cookie cut. We all play a part to better us all and the clients whose interests we are sworn to protect. Let’s honor our different contributions and learn from each other — and our clients — in our quest for a more perfect union, both inside and outside ourselves.

NCAJ’s Charge for You

As NCAJ members, it’s our time to step up. It’s time to get to work to stretch our limits, to improve our trial skills, and to go outside our comfort zones. Since the 2019 convention, we have put together two trial skills CLEs — focus groups and depositions — and are ready to deploy the remaining curriculum of our new trial skills college by July 2020. So, go and try something new for your practice. We all can — and should — do this. We all have the chance.

Volunteer to serve on a moot court panel. Spend time with your local legislators. Not to persuade them of a position on a bill that bugs you, but just for the simple enjoyment of getting to know them as people. Or maybe run for public office yourself. Help to write an amicus brief or write an article for Trial Briefs to serve as a foundation for one of our trial skills courses. We’ll help you. Focus group a case through NCAJ. Serve on one of our committees that push our organization forward, so our next generation of trial lawyers will live up to the challenge of the work we do — and others before us have done — for countless years now. We have so many opportunities, so many chances, and it’s time to put the picture frames behind and the real world ahead.

We are your NCAJ. This is our time.

Thank you.

Vernon Sumwalt is president of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. He has not yet gotten impeached, but there are a couple of months left so hold on for the ride.