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A Good Lawyer

At the Texas Trial Lawyer’s Association annual meeting last week, Dallas trial lawyer Al Ellis gave a talk on what it means to be a trial lawyer.  During the speech he reminded me of a little book that I haven’t thought of in a while.

In 1997, Washington D.C. Lawyer Stephen Comiskey wrote “A Good Lawyer:  Secrets Good Lawyers [and their clients] Already Know.”  It’s a small book —the size of a small index card and about 1/4 inch thick — with a lot of wisdom.  Al sent the book to my partner Mark in 2002, and shortly thereafter, Mark gave it to me, and I read it.   But I hadn’t thought about it in a while until Al mentioned it this month in his speech.  This weekend, I went back and read it, and I wanted to share some of the information in it with others.  The book  is five chapters long, and I’ll have one post looking at each chapter over the next week or so.

The book is an easy read, primarily in bullet points.  Instead of cluttering up the book’s content with my own thoughts, I’m primarily going to paste the bullet points I think are most important.  However, I think each lawyer should read the entire book.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the book is in print any longer, but it was reprinted in whole over a several month period in the Texas Bar Journal in 2003.  Inexplicably, chapters 1, 2 and 5 are available online (and I’ll link to those), but chapters 3 and 4 are nowhere to be found.

Anyway, on to Chapter 1, which deals with The Players in the legal system — the lawyers, clients, judges and juries.  In prefacing his bullets, Comiskey notes:

Who are we lawyers?  Our families, friends, neighbors, and, most amazingly, total strangers, turn to us with their most personal and consequential matters and we all, both they and us, are confident we can assist them.  And we do assist them.  We manage crises.  We work the problems.  We do the deals.  We try the cases.  We serve our clients…

What are each of these player’s expectations of us and how can we meet theirs as well as our own expectations and aspirations?  How can we treat each of them as we want to be treated?  How can we balance their competing demands on us and remain true to ourselves and our clients?  In the heat of the lawyering battles we need unwavering principles to guide us steadfastly.  In the throes of the storms we need lighthouses and buoys to ensure we steer clear of dangers and distractions as we complete our mission and return home.  These good lawyers secrets are the guideposts that serve those purposes.  They serve us all.  They serve us well.

And my favorites of his guideposts are:

1. Lawyers are the custodians of the ideals of our society.

2. Honor, courage, and commitment are the heart and the soul and the body of a lawyer.

5. Lawyering requires working hard, but it’s not hard work. Thinking is hard, but it’s not hard work either. I can’t define hard work for you, but I know it when I see it. Long hours alone don’t define hard work. People who do hard work for a living understand this. You should, too.

13. Trial lawyers have a hard time delegating.

14. Be known as the lawyer who makes deals not breaks them.

15. Create and propose legitimate, sound alternatives to get your client to the desired end result. Think of ways to accomplish things, not reasons why they won’t work or can’t be done. Be a closer.

23. It is important that everyone that you deal with have universal faith in the accuracy of what you say and give to them.

27. Be proud of what you do and what you have done for each of your clients. It is your life’s work and your personal and professional legacy, not only to your family, but to those who follow you to strive to master the art of lawyering.

28. Know who your client is.

29. Remember who your client is.

51. If you can’t do it sincerely, don’t do it. Little children and juries recognize, appreciate, and reward sincerity. Juries punish insincerity.

66. Each individual has their own personal dignity, just as they have their own personal shadow, that varies with the amount and the angle of light shining on that person. Our democratic society, and our justice system within our democracy, will only last as long as we continue to recognize that that dignity, even of the weakest or the vilest amongst us, requires our equal treatment of every one of us under our laws. This is the lawyer’s gospel. Be prepared to fight and to die for it.

In the next post, I’ll have excerpts from Chapter 2, The Tools of the lawyer.  In the meantime, if any of you have read the book, I’d love to hear any feedback or your favorite tips if I haven’t included them in mine.


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