Yesterday, I spent a beautiful Saturday outdoors, helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity as part of an Energy Bar Association pro bono service project. I have to admit that I didn’t seek this project out: my decision to participate was a spur of the moment response to an email that came through my inbox, and was motivated not by true benevolence, but rather, by a realization that I haven’t attended many energy networking events in a while and this presented a convenient opportunity. While I can’t say that I made many business connections yesterday (it’s hard to talk shop when you’re trying not to hammer your finger, plus, energy lawyers only comprised about a third of the partipants), nonetheless, I came back with something better – a little bit of color on my pallid lawyer’s complexion, a few good lessons learned, and a lot of satisfaction, as I’ll describe.
In the past, I’ve done my share of pro bono for indigent clients, primarily throught the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, representing them in public benefits cases, eviction hearings (I kept two families in their homes), discrimination actions. I even helped crack a scam by a vocational school that would sign up homeless people for the program and student loans. The school would take the money and either fail to follow through on the training promised, and wouldn’t let people rescind after one or two classes, leaving the homeless people with insurmountable credit problems and the school owner with a fancy lamborghini (it’s funny the things you remember…). At the same time, I’d always ruled out other service projects, like serving food in soup kitchens or cleaning up a dirty river constituted true pro bono because they didn’t make use of my legal skills. After my experience yesterday, I still believe that my time spent on pro bono is most valuable when I provide legal services, because that’s where my competency lies – but just because I’m best at providing legally related pro bono, doesn’t mean that I need to limit my service to law projects only.
Of course, this doesn’t hold true for all lawyers. As I saw yesterday, some lawyers have skills, like house building, that extend beyond the law. I am not one of them. As a general matter, I’m not much of a crafty person, and not surprisingly, I was fairly inept at yesterday’s task – building the frame for a house. I bent nails, broke them trying to remove them, misaligned the pieces of the frame and didn’t even know the proper terminology for the various components. And needless to say, I was slower than everyone, embarrassed and frustrated trying to get my nails into the board while the others on the team stood around waiting. Fortunately, the Habitat people were incredibly patient, waiting quietly as I finished my tasks, and encouraging me along.
On the way home, I got to thinking that the way that I felt on that construction site must be how many of our clients feel in the litigation process. Like me, our clients our competent people in their own right, thrown into a world which is foreign to them and which they don’t comprehend. Just as I didn’t undertand the importance of a perfectly aligned triple board, and grew impatient about having to always stop and even it out, most of our clients don’t understand why they need to respond to an interrogatory in a certain way, or answer a depo question or not talk to so-and-so or why the process takes so long. So these clients call or email to ask questions or complain…sometimes a lot. And though we often mock these clients, or grow impatient with them, we sometimes forget to consider that perhaps, they’re just struggling to grasp a process that’s second nature to us lawyers.
After yesterday, I realized that most legal procedures can make even the most capable of our clients feel stupid, just like building a house made me – a lawyer with 19 years of experience – feel like an utter clod. We should remember that the next time we get impatient. And every so often, we should go out and do something publicly at which we’re completely inept, be it constructing a house or swimming laps or taking a knitting class – to remind ourselves of how our clients feel, and to figure out ways that we can help them through.