The other day I delivered an oral argument that was powerful, persuasive and perfectly on point – only to realize with dismay that nobody was listening but me.
This happens more often than I’d care to admit. The Fixer in me gets so wrapped up in trying to fix other people and tell them what to do that I don’t even notice when they’re no longer there.
A recent example occurred when my daughter Rachel called from Brooklyn. Rachel is strong, smart and sweet, but she rarely calls her father. By rarely I mean never, which was why I picked up with a mixture of shock and dread.
“Great news Dad,” she said, all excited. “I’m moving.”
“I have no idea. And I’m quitting my job.”
“To do what?”
“Don’t know that either. I’ll figure it out when I get there.”
Here I should say I rose from my chair and began pacing. I do my best thinking that way.
And it worked. Within seconds I had assembled the relevant facts and paired them with logical conclusions. In my best Fixer Voice I began explaining to my otherwise sensible daughter why giving up a good job and nice apartment in exchange for absolutely nothing was a bad idea.
I was cogent. I was convincing. I wore not only my Parental Hat but also my Lawyer Hat and – for good measure – my Speaking-from-Experience Hat.
But I guess all those hats must have caused some sort of transmission overload, because when I finally concluded my lecture and heard nothing on the other end, I discovered my phone battery had died. I had been talking to myself the whole time.
Say You, Say Me
Immediately I was teleported back to the 1980’s, when Madonna and Lionel Richie ruled, and my name was on the appointed counsel list for Charleston County Probate Court – Therapeutic Determination Division.
I believe it’s now called the Civil Commitment Division. But I always liked how Therapeutic Determination sounded. I had a law degree, after all, which gave me license to opine on all things therapeutic, whether I knew what I was talking about or not.
In one of my very first appointments, I arrived at court to find that a treatment plan had already been worked out and agreed to by everybody, including my client and his family and doctor.
But I didn’t let that get in my way. I had things to say. There were constitutional points to raise, including arguments on some amendments that didn’t even exist.
I was so enthralled with the sound of my Fixer Voice I didn’t notice that the others in the room were looking around in confusion. Mercifully, the judge called a recess and invited me into his chambers.
Judge Bernard Fielding was a legal pioneer and civil rights hero. He was also one of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve ever met. The Fieldings ran the oldest black-owned funeral home in South Carolina and he’d grown up in the family business, which made him uniquely qualified to deal with the likes of me.
“I’m glad you’ll be appearing in my court,” said Judge Fielding. “Tell me more about yourself.”
And instead of lecturing or berating me, he listened to me. Then he suggested I go into the conference room and do the same with my client. Which I did.
In the hearing that followed, I did not use my Fixer Voice. There was no need. The few words I spoke were mostly variations of “Yes your honor.” The resulting order was the best possible outcome for my client.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time and place for a Fixer Voice. Nobody knew that better than Judge Fielding, who was arguing civil rights cases when I was in elementary school. There is also a time and place for shutting up and listening.
Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
After recharging my phone I called my daughter back. By then I’d had time to reflect. I realized she’d been trying to tell me for months that she was dissatisfied with her life and wanted to make some changes.
But I hadn’t heard her. I was too busy trying to fix her.
“Dad we got cut off. What were you about to say?”
“Nothing much. Only that I’m glad you called. Tell me more about your life.”
Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. Rachel is in the process of moving to Seattle. Or maybe Atlanta or DC or Florida. Judge Fielding was recently honored for being “a remarkable humanitarian and standard bearer of justice for all.” 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.