For a successful law practice, know your humans

What does it take to have a successful law practice? This question reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain who said, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

I doubt he was focusing on the legal profession. And while the trust part is understandable, I’m not so sure about the ignorance part. As lawyers, we have to be able to be persuasive. And to excel in this business, it helps to be observant and to get and use certain information – or even know when not to use it.

I have found that it all comes down to understanding and appreciating the human element in every situation. Those you need to persuade must like you and/or like your case. Or like Tweedledee in on the other side of the mirror says, “on the contrary”; they must not like the other side or their case. (My quote from Tweedledee is limited to “contrariwise” only.)

For better or worse, everyone, whether judge, jury member or client, has quirks that govern their likes and dislikes. And if we do not know their whims, it is useful to notice their reactions and assess which way the wind is blowing.

I remember once being in a motions court before a judge who seemed impatient, periodically interrupting the attorney and saying, “Your argument doesn’t enlighten me.” This worried me while I waited for my case to be called. At first, I thought my chances of winning the motion were between 40% and 60%. Considering the judge’s apparent mood, however, my confidence level dropped a bit. My assessment too.

My opponent, more seasoned than me, was dressed to kill, dressed in a fancy three-piece suit and sporting a gold chain pocket watch in his waistcoat. He reminded me of senior barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, played by Charles Laughton, in the iconic film prosecution witness. He rose to chat first, frequently checking his pocket watch. He looked a little smug, suggesting that my opposition to his motion was a complete waste of the court’s time. The judge didn’t interrupt him at all. It worried me. I noticed the judge fidgeting a bit uncomfortably, especially every time the other lawyer touched his pocket watch or even his jacket.

When it was my turn to speak, I took a risk. I started with, “Your Honor, I hope you find my point enlightening.”

The judge flashed a quick smile and said, “Carry on, sir.

He stared at me intently and eagerly, and lifted his pen to take notes. I didn’t know what to do with it. On the one hand, I didn’t dare take a look at my wristwatch.

Fortunately, his decision was favorable. Did he like my case? My opening quip? Or maybe he didn’t like the other lawyer’s gold pocket watch. I would never know. But he must have loved (or hated) something that enlightened him.

I remember another case shortly after being called to the bar where I attended traffic court and represented a client in a minor offense. It was raining and once in the courtroom, I forgot to take off my light trench coat; I didn’t know it had to be removed. When my case was called, the judge quietly suggested that I take off my trench coat, saying, “It’s not raining here, Columbo.”

I apologized and took it down. When it was my turn to make a closing statement after the short trial, the judge said, “Summons, Lieutenant?

The charge was dismissed. I didn’t think my argument was that good. My confidence was OK, although a little shaken. Was the success aided by my ignorance, as Twain suggested? Or maybe the judge just liked Columbo? Something persuaded him.

I was not so successful in another trial where I had to argue an important point of admissibility of evidence, and lunchtime was fast approaching. I thought I could do it quickly and said to the judge, quoting Shakespeare, “I’ll be quick. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.'”

The judge replied, quoting French comedian Rabelais, “OK sir, but remember: ‘An empty stomach has no ears.'”

To this day, I regret choosing Shakespeare over Rabelais. My ignorance there did not succeed.

And would you believe that openness and honesty can sometimes be an obstacle? Whenever I interviewed clients in personal injury cases, they asked me, “How long will this case take?” (This question followed, “How much will I get?” Followed by the terser and the crispy, “How much will you get?”)

Since it’s no secret that these cases can take years to resolve, I used to point to a big old maple tree outside my two-story suburban office and say something like, “Before this case is over, these leaves will change color and then fall. , then the branches will be covered with snow, then the leaves will grow back. This cycle will occur several times.

Shortly after this spiel about a potentially lucrative case, one of my clients got away, transferring his case to a lawyer in a downtown high-rise. I asked my successor if the client had a problem with me. He told me that I left the client with the impression that his case would take forever to resolve. The client especially didn’t like my story about the tree.

I found this feeling a little overwhelming. It was the truth, but the customer was mad at me. At least he didn’t file a disciplinary complaint with the Law Society of Ontario, alleging something like, “My lawyer is callous and cold-blooded. He compared my case to a pile of leaves.

And so, what does it take to convince successfully? We all know the methods, such as not going overboard, keeping it simple, and using stories and analogies. Exactly true, although in my aforementioned case I crossed out the tree analogy.

We must realize that we are constantly judged by what we say or do or, sometimes, on the contrary; what we don’t say or do.

Aristotle said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather talk.” No doubt he meant to listen and observe.

But in the end, doesn’t it all come down to having a sense of the human element?

I convinced you?

Marcel Strigberger, after more than 40 years practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law practice and decided to continue pursuing his passions for writing and speaking. His recently released book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: An Irreverent Boomer-Biased Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit and follow him @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.

Jon J. Epps