Collaborative Law for Civil Cases

What kind of lawyer are you? (Part 1)

March 30, 2020

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I get that question all the time, as you might imagine. But ever since launching my own law firm in 2016, I have changed the way I answer it. Quite fundamentally, in fact. After almost 25 years of practicing and teaching law in Charlotte, I cannot help but answer this question more in terms of how I practice, rather than what areas of law I handle.  

Since I began practicing as a litigation attorney in 1995, my clients have included:  

  • Shareholders and company owners facing breakup or dissolution of a business partnership that once held so much potential;  
  • Property owners, developers, and general contractors sifting through the remains of once-promising commercial construction projects gone sideways.
  • Husbands and wives (who are also often mothers and fathers) facing separation and divorce (often following a devastating betrayal, or one spouse’s battle with some form of addiction);  
  • Sons and daughters grappling with the death of a cherished parent, and the uncertainty often left by incomplete, inadequate, or possibly fraudulent wills or estate planning documents.

All these scenarios involve different “areas” of law, different contexts for the dispute.

But a common thread running through them all is that someone’s dream has essentially crashed and burned. Some hope they once held—for financial gain, or happiness, or companionship, or security—has now been shattered. My clients are the people left holding the wreckage, and wondering how they are going to manage (or survive with) what’s left of their families, their businesses, their ideas, or their loved one’s assets.

In short, they are grieving losses. They are invariably suffering, on some kind of level. And they are often drained and “at wit’s end” by the time the come to see me.

Over time, I came to realize that people who are experiencing that kind of trauma and pain may not always be functioning at their optimal level of decision-making. I mean, how could they? I can’t function well under those circumstances either. Because none of us can.  

And at some point, I began to wonder about the wisdom of taking people in that state, and then having my job be to gear them up for an adversarial process that will likely compound their stress, increase their expenditures, suck more of their time, and heighten the acrimony in what was once a meaningful and productive relationship. Seriously? We take people who are already reeling and feeling out of control, and we usher them onto a battlefield full of trip wires, land mines, and enemy fire? Wait, what? Oh, and there’s very little certainty what awaits on the other side if they do happen to prevail.

Because the other common thread that I have experienced firsthand in just about every area of practice is this dirty little secret: the litigation process is often woefully inadequate for making these kinds of wrongs right.  

The adversary system assumes a world considerably more “black and white” than the one my clients operate in. Since a trial is supposed to be a quest for “the truth,” lawyers tend to focus on relentlessly attacking the credibility of the opposing party and their witnesses. Motion hearings and trials frequently yield unsatisfying results—often even for the prevailing party. Judges and juries reward “winners” and “losers,” and often what is “given” to one side is necessarily taken from the other. And usually at everyone’s expense—figuratively and literally.

Don’t just take my word for it, though. Here are some of the most common words my individual and business clients tend to use in describing litigation:

Expensive. Confusing, Exhausting. Tedious. Random. Inefficient. Maddening.  

When I got to spend a few years teaching law school full time, I got to step outside the system. To think about it and study it from the outside, from a completely different point of view.  

And I couldn’t help but conclude that there has to be a better way. For all kinds of cases, dealing with all kinds of subject matter. Even if not for everybody, certainly for a lot of folks.  

And I wondered if there could be a better way for me to operate, as well, as a lawyer committed to helping people with complex and agonizing disputes.

So when I got to start fresh and launch my own firm, I had to answer that opening question a bit differently. What kind of lawyer am I?  

As it turns out, I am a bridge-builder. I am at my best when I can function as a creative problem-solver. And hopefully, as an empathetic guide for individual and business clients who are navigating the most gut-wrenching and often devastating events in their lives.

Make no mistake: I am no less passionate or skillful an advocate for my clients than I have ever been. But now, I have a much wider array and depth of tools at my disposal. The kind of lawyer I am… is one who knows a bit about how to get deals done. To get warring factions talking again, just maybe, willing to give some ground.  

A close friend called it “making a way where there seems to be no way.” That’s what I do.

It’s hard work—indeed, some of the hardest work I have done in my career as a lawyer. But its good work, and I believe in it and relentlessly hone my skills in it, because it’s what’s best for my clients.  

I love seeing clients retain (or begin to regain) some measure of control over what happens next. They can sooner begin to forge a new path to a “new normal” that may not be quite the same as the one they once envisioned. They get to stop dealing in and reeling from more attacks and countermeasures.  

And if my collaboratively-trained colleagues and I do our jobs right, our respective clients may not even need us much after a while. We may not have to charge them as much, because they get to a place where they can forge a better path forward, all by themselves. And that’s quite all right by me.

Because that’s the kind of lawyer I am.