“Client” Is A Sterile Word
We just recently completed a medical malpractice trial in Alabama. A beloved mother, wife and a human being that we never knew was lost due to the negligence of another. We spent ten days with perhaps the most sincere clients I have ever met. We learned, first hand, about their hurts, their agony, their struggles and how deeply they loved this person. It was only through their words that we came to know who we really represented. Five years later, the still unhealed hurt in their eyes opened a window into their souls. It was the same window I had looked through so many times before. Over the course of this trial, they evolved from our clients to our friends. They became “our people.”
These were people of a different color, culture and socioeconomic background from us. While they had to borrow money to purchase their suit for trial, we had the luxury of choosing between one of the five we had brought for trial. Our education was post graduate; theirs was, at best, 10th grade. Our words were multi-syllabic; their words simple, yet meaningful, and I dare say, the more powerful. For a season, we became of the same mind and understanding of the universal language of right and wrong.
As the week went on, our exhaustion was displaced by our compassion and driven desire to see justice. These people didn’t choose this early death. They didn’t choose the courthouse. They didn’t choose to be turned away from the locals, only to find a lawyer who lived 600 miles away. Their total reliance upon us brought to bear that the courtroom was a world they, as most others, never knew existed. It brought to mind the great chasm between life and justice that we, as trial lawyers, have a responsibility to fill.
Over the course of the trial, time and time again we were thanked for our willingness to take their case, for our extended travel from our own in-tact families and for fighting for their rights. As the case progressed, my attention was focused on my next day, my next witness and the strategies we developed. This single-mindedness caused me only cursorily to acknowledge their words of respect, admiration and thanks. Indeed, the true import of what they were trying to communicate did not register in my heart until, after the verdict was announced, we saw their tears. In retrospect, I hope they were unable to see my lack of attention to what they were trying to tell us.
People, or perhaps more succinctly, less fortunate people, are the lifeblood of what we do. They come and go in our lives. Only for a moment are they the most important thing in our lives. Win, lose or draw, we go on to the next trial, and they go home with the same harm tethered only by our success, or lack thereof, in the courtroom. We meet them, learn everything we can about them and spend time with them. But do we ever really take the time to empathize with their station in life? Or are we so engrossed in the battle that we sterilize the fact that, indeed, each of us is a mere breath away from being just like them? And while we refer proudly to them as our clients, do we, in our hearts, acknowledge them as people? Our people?
Every time I step in front of a jury, I am reminded of how blessed I am to be an advocate for those who suffer at the hands of others. This particular trial resounded the words of my mentor, Bruce Munson, “Being a lawyer is a privilege, not a right.” It is a place where I am fortunate enough to find, meet and interact with people who truly need me—people whose lives I can impact for the better. This privilege implies a responsibility to continue to learn, grow and maximize my God-given talent. It demands that I violate the Golden Rule outside the courtroom and, in fact, empathize with “my people.”
I am embarrassed to say that I am guilty of the very indictment that I propose in this letter. My message is clear: yes, we have clients, but we represent people. People who need us; who rely on us; in whose lives they place their unabashed trust. It is a high calling. One to be taken seriously. One to be counted, indeed, as a privilege, not a right. And it is one that deserves thanking those who have emboldened our lives to take on such a task. Call someone today and thank them for how they have made you a better lawyer. And tell “your people” thank you for allowing you to exercise the privilege of being their lawyer. I think I’ll call my people first. Then I’ll call my mom. Then I’ll extend a thank you to each and every one of you who is a member of this organization for, in fact, making me a better lawyer.
For those of you who are coming to Hawk’s Cay, I’ll see you there. For those of you who are not, you will be missed. I hope to see you at Mardi Gras. Go Hogs Go!