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An Ode to Bedside Manner

We lawyers rarely sit beside a client’s bed. The mere thought sends some to shrink into a little ball. But what irks the oaf should gird the loins. Intimate secrets, more often reserved for the bed than the table, are the lawyer’s jewels: the illicit affair; the child spurned; pain suffered otherwise in silence; wealth sought and lost; crimes in thought and deed – no duration suffices to list the prodigious confidences confessed. Wielding power in vulnerable moments, the lawyer most admired is more feared than loved. And why is this?

The client is a ground best dug for facts. Our role, to weave the facts into a story, requires nothing more of the client. Once excavated, we respond, “thanks for meeting me. I’ll get back to you with the next step”, or worse, cross-examine the client to the test the truthiness within, “you were late to the scene. You saw nothing else. You took…” Caught in the gears of legal machinery, we grind our respective gears, the lawyer grinding, the client ground. The lawyer powers on, master of the domain, while the client disintegrates into dirt. This a tragedy.

It’s a tragedy borne in cynicism (and are we not skeptics, perfectionists, cynics?). In the middle of my journey with my client into the depths of hell a client interview I found myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost. Staring into the face of a lying client, I recalled the phrase uttered by the great Dr. House, he of the canon of human psychology: “it’s a basic truth of the human condition. Everybody lies.” Before me lay two paths: I could roll my eyes, internally dismiss my client, and pray to get the client interview over with as fast as possible; or I could sigh in resignation, accept that lies can be told for perfectly good reasons – self-deception, forgetfulness, embarrassment – and continue to plumb the depths in patience. I have chosen both paths and unfortunately achieved wisdom. The one path leads to a journey into the seven circles of hell – an adventure, to be sure, and interesting, but has anyone really ever read the whole Divine Comedy? The other leads to brighter days, positive google reviews, and shorter client interviews.

Contrast the lawyer with the physician, a profession famous for its bedside manner. The physician’s job is often defined and limited to the in-person interaction with the patient. There is little to be done after the interaction. Write up the notes, request referrals, move on. Not so with us lawyers. For every 1 minute spent in-person with the client, we spend 50 minutes working on the file. The in-person meeting is dwarfed by the file itself; and this disproportionate investment in time, too, makes it easy to dismiss the importance of the in-person interaction, and diminishes the lawyer’s bedside manner.

When children popped into my life I sought a lawyer for a will. A lawyer knowing lawyers, I googled lawyers. I asked fellow lawyers for referrals. I called several. I got prices. The prices were largely the same. The will I got was pretty much what I expected. Was the will really any different than any other will? Was it better than the Walmart will? Could I have drafted the same or better with a will kit or with the Law Society’s own “Annotated Will”? Will-drafting is commoditized at the simplest levels, and increasingly commoditized at higher levels. So why did I choose the lawyer I did? Bedside manner.

When a client interviews several lawyers, we engage in what is called the “beauty contest”. We put on our Sunday best and give our best pitch. I lost many beauty contests in the early part of my career, giving my best pitch. With the education of many lost clients I discovered the best pitch is no pitch at all. It is simply to sit there and listen, to empathize, to ask follow up questions. In other words, I cultivated an effective bedside manner.

Vigilance is required for our reputation is the opposite of the physician’s. We quarry no love from the public. We are championed for the causes we champion, and similarly vilified. Our bedside manner is non-existent in the popular culture – and in reality. But as we saturate the market with more and more of us, as social media makes it easier and easier to scrutinize our services, as technology commoditizes our service, it will be these little human things – the lawyer’s bedside manner – that separate the wheat from the chaff. So cultivate your wheat, my friends. It is not so painful to smile, to listen, and to empathize.

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