By Michael Heatherly
In my last post, I described five significant changes in the practice of law that have developed since I got my license in 1991 (less conventional library research, paper replaced by e-documents, more emphasis on marketing, etc.). But in writing that piece, I couldn’t help but also think of the things that have not changed, despite the technological and societal transformations of the past couple of decades.
Here is what came to mind:
- The raw material of law. For those of us not in cutting-edge fields of practice (high-tech intellectual property, space law, or whatever), the realities of life that put people in need of legal representation haven’t changed in centuries. People still divorce their spouses, get charged with crimes, adopt children, argue with their neighbors over property lines, make business deals, and get injured in accidents. While the details of practice change, lawyers’ basic ability to understand human affairs and render effective advice to the people involved will always be the hallmark of the profession.
- Professional judgment. Regardless of whether you do research in a musty basement library or on your smartphone, and whether your clients are homeless refugees or multimillionaire entrepreneurs, what they depend on is your professional judgment. Can you boil complex facts down to their essence, apply sound reasoning to analyze them, then devise and execute the plan of action that best serves the client’s interests? That’s what Abraham Lincoln did for his clients in the 19th century, what Thurgood Marshall did for his in the 20th century, and what you need to get back to doing for your clients as soon as you finish reading this blog post.
- Communication fundamentals. The means available to communicate, as well as styles of communication, are constantly changing. But the fundamentals of communication don’t seem to change. The capacity to listen attentively and retain information, together with the ability to express thoughts and feelings clearly, will always be critical parts of the successful lawyer’s professional repertoire. Even text messages and social media comments can convey much meaning, so we still need to carefully consider the denotations and connotations of information we’re taking in and giving out.
- The importance of honesty. Lately, everyone is talking about “transparency.” They mean it figuratively, referring to forthrightness and accountability in business, governmental, and personal dealings. I think it all fits within the old-fashioned notion of honesty, something that always has been and always will be critically important to lawyers and clients. If you sit down with new clients and honestly explain how your fee arrangement works and what the possible outcomes of the representation are — including the good, the bad, and the ugly — your clients likely will appreciate your “transparency” regardless of whether you’re defending them on a DUI or litigating an international cybersecurity breach.
- Negotiation. No matter how complicated things have gotten in our profession, thanks to lightspeed advances in technology, the endless evolution of laws and procedures, and the increasing complexity of society in general, most legal engagements ultimately come down to two or more parties making some sort of deal: a settlement, a plea agreement, a contract. Whether they work in person, by telephone, on paper, or online, lawyers with the right blend of savvy and diplomacy to negotiate effectively will always be in demand.