Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lawyers Help. How to Answer the Question: What Do You Do For a Living?

Laser speech; elevator talk; hooks. These are all concepts that Public Relation experts have introduced into the lexicon of the lawyer. We are told at countless "Marketing Seminars" that we have to develop a way to tell people what we do in a short, attention grabbing way. I found this a little challenging at first. I am not a man of few words.

I am a story teller. I like to tell them and I like to hear good stories told. If you think about it. Story telling is what I do. I mean I do it in part. I tell the client's story as well as I can to a judge, a jury, an adversary. I tell it to a claims adjuster and to investigators and police. Sometimes I tell it to the clients family too.

But I do more than that do I not? After all, I am a Doctor of Laws. I am a "Man of Letters." I have been "hooded." I guess if asked what I do, I could say I write letters.

In fact of course I am a trial attorney. I handle criminal cases and civil cases. I am a Matrimonial lawyer. I handle crisis. I do so many things in the course of a day, I am unable to really find a way to tell people what I do in a short pithy manner.

The best way for me to explain my dilemma is to tell you a story:

Last week, a I received a phone call from a distraught mom. Her child was arrested for shoplifting. The child, a college senior has always been a great kid and gifted student. She has dreams of grad school and some kind of a professional license. Although time was tight, I decided to see her the same day. She and her parents came in. As they walked in, I could see what had happened and why. When they entered, Dad was on one side of her mom on the other. Mom was a wreak and the young girl, though apologetic was the calmest one in the group. She was huddled in a heavy coat and while it was cold outside, it was temperate in my office. The coat was a giveaway as to what was to come.

After a few pleasantries I asked the mom and dad to leave the office. I noticed that when they left, the client sat back a bit in her chair. She was still bundled in a heavy coat but it was not that cold in my office. It was almost as if she were hiding from me behind her coat. I asked if she was cold but she said no. I then asked her about what had happened the day before. I tried to ask her questions in a non-cognitive way. That is to say, I took things out of order and mixed in questions that had nothing to do with the previous question or even the facts, so as to keep the client from feeling too comfortable and developing a "rhythm".

The kid readily admitted she stole the item from the store. She had almost no emotion in telling me this. She seemed to have no insight as to why she even took the item as she was more than capable of paying for it. I used this as an opening. I asked her if she was ever overweight. She acknowledged she had been and felt she was presently a little "fat(ter)" than she wanted to be. Personally I thought she was beautiful. As a result I felt the next question would be a gateway to determining what had happened here. I asked her if she used binging and purging as a way to control her weight. She thought for a second about admitting this but then she acknowledged she had for a while, had stopped and then had begun again about a month ago. This would soon become significant.

After her admission on the binge/purge phenomenon I asked her point blank when she had been assaulted. She immediately denied ever being assaulted or abused. I waited a moment and looked her in the eyes. She hesitated, and the tears filled her eyes. She then admitted she had been attacked by two strangers outside of her dorm a few weeks into her freshman year. She had been drinking. She said she was not raped because a boy she knew happened onto the scene and broke it up. She had told no one about it. She told her new boyfriend about it just before winter break, a month ago...

Now in full sobs, she didn't want her parents to know. They are old and would be upset and she didn't want to upset them. She was afraid they wouldn't let her return to school. That they would be angry at her because she "let" herself be put into a situation she lost control over.

Of course I knew that they would be upset because she had been hurt and that if they found out they would readily understand what had happened and why the petty theft had occured. I knew they weren't going to pull her from school and that she needed to tell them. I also new they weren't going to fall apart. They weren't that "old". In fact they were MY AGE!!!! It never fails to amaze me how our children think their parents feeble when they turn eighteen...

Anyway, upon the parents return, she and I spoke to them. They were confused until she gave me permission to tell them what had happened. Then the waterworks started, and she got the love and support she needed. Her mom hugged her and cried. Dad was obviously concerned and upset but he handled it just right. I knew they were going to handle it well, they had produced a brave, smart, wonderful child and that didn't happen because they were judgemental, unsupportive or feeble. While it was tough to do, and not easy to handle, healing was beginning before my eyes.

I referred the parents to a Psycotherapist that handled sex crimes and victims so that they could process their feelings and then I referred the client to her Mental health facility at school. I am now going to seek dismissal of the case with the District Attorney and this kid will go on to achieve her dreams and fufill the promise she displayed. She is again her parents "golden child."

I am not a shrink, nor do I play one on TV, but I am a gatekeeper. I am a person who has some streetsmarts and life experience. I am a student and a teacher. I am a parent and a spouse which was the main reasons I handled that situation as well as I did. (It helps that my sons are the same age as my client above.)

I came home and was telling the story of what happened to my family. Both of my sons work with me in the office, and my wife still helps out with "managment issues" when I need her to (she was the best secretary I ever had). My youngest son, Frank, looked at me and said " Hey dad, I have a new laser speech for you." "I'm a lawyer and I help." I had to smile. In six words he encapculated exactly what I do, and what I aim to do. He says he wants to be a lawyer too, but he may have a career in public relations.

I have a new answer for the question "What do I do for a living?"

"I'm a lawyer, and I help."


Russell Lawson said...

I would agree from your story that you have intellect and street smarts. Bright, articulate, all that. Admirable how you unlocked the motivation for petty criminal behavior. I'm feelin' the love.

Still, there are two nits at which I must pick. Nit one is that the opening gambit in a conversation that illuminates what you do with the law does not have to be the entire story. It does, I think, have to be an engaging headline or abstract, to use a more legalistic word. Your shoplifting tale might go, "Well, I represent people who have legal issues and my aim is to uncover their authentic needs in order to provide an acceptable and appropriate solution." Just one way, there are others. Begs the question, "Like what?" or "Sounds interesting, can you tell me more?" And then you've begun the relationship process. "I'm a lawyer and I help," doesn't accomplish the same goal, IMHO. The latter is about you. The former is about your clients.

Nit two is the paternalistic attitude of your description. I read betwen the lines, "These poor people, if they only had my insight. I will grant them the benefit of my intellect and skills and make them whole." Really. You're good. Don't make a story out of your prowess. That doesn't seem like teaching, it seem like boasting. But, hey, I'm just one guy and only a marketing professional. So don't take my word for it.

Anthony Colleluori said...

Thank you for stopping by. I think appreciate your thoughtful commments.

I agree that there are many ways to approach the "Elevator speech" I think your suggestion is a good one although it feels a little stiff coming out of my mouth. Maybe with some more practice...

On the other hand, I worry that when I start by announcing "I represent" or stringing multisylabic words together, that I am losing my audience.

Finally as for your suggestion that I am being paternalistic, I do not feel that was either my tone nor do I feel that I was boasting. I was suggesting through a story that lawyers listen for verbal clues and body language.

As for you being a marketing expert, well, that is appreciated, but not the point of this blog. While I think that lawyers need to see that they have a marketinig obligation if they intend to stay in business, it is far more important that they give their clients the benefit of their experiences and knowledge. Given the feed back I received on this post from attorneys on Twitter, I think they understood this post for exactly what it was: a example of how a the skill of listening and watching can help a client, and how the duty of the lawyer goes beyond the handling of a case and to the handling of a client. It is always about their needs. If a lawyers practice is not client-centric, it provides little value to the client.

Again thank you for stopping by and moreover thank you for your observations.