Probably the biggest mistake I made as a young lawyer was wanting too badly for people to like me.
By people I mean clients, mostly. But also judges, other lawyers, the butcher, the baker. Pretty much everybody.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being liked. I suppose it beats the alternative. But if it becomes your primary motivator – as it was for me back then – you’re asking for trouble.
This was years ago in Charleston, when I was practicing in a third-floor office heated and cooled by an enormous window unit that roared like a B-52 and turned the space into either an icebox or oven. It was climate change, courtesy of Carrier, in a room so tiny clients had to sit directly in the eye of the storm.
I mention this only because I worried that if my clients were shivering uncontrollably or sweating buckets, they would not like me as much. And so I spent many of my formative hours trying to get the office temperature just right.
Law is Not a Popularity Contest
Back then I had aspirations. I would look down upon Broad Street, or over at the lovely little park beside City Hall, and see the town’s top lawyers. These were men and women whose family names adorned local bridges and buildings. People came up to them just to shake hands.
I wanted to be popular too. I wouldn’t mind having a bridge named after me.
And so I agreed to meet with Mrs. J. She had been referred by my lawyer friend Nick, which should have been the first tipoff. Nick had even fewer cases than I did and would accept any client with a pulse.
But I hated telling people no, and so I agreed to meet with Mrs. J.
“It’s freezing in here,” she said in our initial meeting.
“Give it a minute,” I said. “It’ll warm up.”
And so it did, as Mrs. J told a long and convoluted tale of being mistreated at the Charleston Naval Shipyard – this was back before Detyens took over – and wanting to sue every individual and company on a long list she’d prepared.
“I need a fighter,” she said.
“I’m your guy.”
Because people like fighters, right? So I said I would look into her case, even though I suspected it had all the merits of a moist tissue.
“I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers,” she said – which should have been the final tipoff, knowing half the county bar had already passed on this case. “And you’re the best one yet.”
But I did my due diligence. And when I eventually broke the news that I would not be able to help her, I sensed her disappointment. I could tell she didn’t like me as much anymore.
And who could blame her? I had given her false hope and subjected her to arctic conditions – mostly because I wanted to be seen as a great guy. And did I mention I had trouble saying no?
The Lessons Teens Teach Us
I am grateful to Mrs. J. I hope life has been kind to her. She taught me a valuable lesson: that clients deserve the truth, whether they like it or not.
Years later, this lesson was reinforced by the experience of raising teenagers.
“I love you,” they’d say when I let them eat cake for dinner or gave them the car keys. “You’re the best dad in the world.”
“I hate you,” they’d say the next day, when we had broccoli casserole or I took the keys away. “You’re the worst dad in the world.”
In reality, of course, I was neither. I got a few base hits as a parent, and I made lots of errors. Most of the latter occurred when I told them what they wanted to hear rather than what I knew to be right.
Now, as I shuffle into my seventh decade on this big blue marble, I see how my need for approval did nobody any good. Sure, I wanted Mrs. J and my children to like me.
But on a deeper level, I wanted them to trust me, to learn from me, to benefit from my counsel. I wanted to make their lives better. These were treasures that had to be earned – not by being a weakling who caved to their demands, but by being strong and honest and caring.
Which, ironically, was exactly what they wanted too.
Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. Mrs. J returned as a client for other, more fruitful matters. His children now have their own cars. Want to jump-start your law marketing or improve your law messaging? Contact email@example.com or 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.