Trial Briefs

Lawyer, Explain Thyself  

March 01, 2023   |   Valerie Johnson

Be Who You Are But Learn How to Tell People What you Do

Imagine that you are at a neighborhood party and are introduced to a person who recently moved to the U.S. from Europe. You smile and ask, “What do you do?” But instead of a cheery answer and perhaps a discussion of the higher voltage available in their country, you get a frosty stare before they excuse themselves to go to the buffet.

In some cultures, it is inappropriate to ask people what they do. It is considered a personal question and a way to separate people on the basis of class. Perhaps some would treat a stay-at-home mother differently than a business owner? And the question can cause distress to the person being asked: What if they just lost their job or cannot work because of a disability? Despite the potential minefield it presents, “What do you do?” is often the first thing said after an introduction. So how do you answer the question when you are the one asked?   

If you immediately reply, “I am a lawyer,” you aren’t alone in your chosen answer. Perhaps you answer that way because of the pride you have for your chosen profession. You spent years studying and a lot of money while training to be a lawyer. You had to pass the bar exam, find a job, and now must maintain your professional license with continuing education classes. You may have spent the time to become a board-certified specialist or to be able to practice in another state.  

The pride you feel in being a lawyer, with its association with intellect and maybe with power or money, may have blinded you to the actual question that you were asked. What you do is different than who you are. While “I am a lawyer” is frequently said, you would never say “I lawyer.”  

Let’s all agree how great it is that you are a lawyer. Your family is probably proud of you and really happy that they don’t have to pay a lawyer to ask questions. But the truth is that many people have been conditioned to believe that lawyers are bad people.i In fact, you may also dislike lawyers, because you are not immune to that same conditioning, and because it is hard to deal with attorneys who can be discourteous, obstinate and underhanded.  

How then, might you deal with the icebreaker, “What do you do?” 

Actually Answer the Question 

Your work is amazing. Whether you fight for the rights of the accused, help injured people pick up the pieces of their lives, battle insurance companies, or practice law in the many ways our members do, you are an effective barrier to the excesses of corporations and the recklessness of others. You actually help people.  

And your work is difficult. What other job requires you to fight, argue, write and juggle competing demands? It’s as if you are asked to save a lamb from a lion with your voice, a computer and your wits over Zoom, every day. Your explanation ought to encompass the complexity of what you do, and the glory of your self-appointed quest to do good work. Let’s consider some candidates for your response.  

Version 1, The Helper:  “I help people who have been injured.” If personal injury or workers’ compensation practice is your life’s work, you might choose something about helping others. It works for other practices, too, with little editing. “I help people through the worst trouble of their lives” is another variation.  

This answer may suffer from a lack of specificity. Are you a doctor, a psychologist or a social worker? Though it isn’t bad to be aligned with these professions, this answer is not very descriptive. But as a conversation starter, it is pretty good. Simple language, strong sentiment.  

Version 2, The Advocate: “I advocate for people’s rights.” Some of us love the courtroom. This answer points directly to that arena, while also encompassing the fights that take place over email and the phone. “I protect people’s rights” is a variation.  

While advocate is a very specific word that is both a verb and a noun, it isn’t a simple word. It sounds professional and tough. That toughness could be the exact right response. 

Version 3, Safety Law: “I am a safety lawyer.” To be clear, there is no problem with the word lawyer. Lawyer is unfussy and straightforward, originating from Middle English. The use of the word attorney seems fussier. But it is the word safety that shines here. Safetyii is a basic human need. All of us at NCAJ fight for safety and to protect our clients and the community. And “safety lawyer” correctly differentiates our mission from the lawyers out there that oppose safety and protection.  

These are only a few of the ways you can tell others what you do. Words are important. Your explanation of what you do in your work is a way to change the direction of the conversation. That conversation extends to the larger society.  

Valerie Johnson’s President’s Column appears in the Quarter 1 2023 edition of Trial Briefs.