My Shingle

Be the Lawyer Who Sits on the Toilet Seat

by Carolyn Elefant on February 6, 2012 · 7 comments

in Client Service, MyShingle Solo

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During the last week of my dad’s life, my sisters, mom and I experienced the best and worst of the medical profession.

The lowest point came mid-way through my father’s last week, when my mother and I were accosted in the public lounge outside the intensive care unit (ICU) by one of the doctors who was head of one of the medical groups treating my father. Slovenly dressed in a faded polo shirt, rumpled khakis and worn jogging shoes, the doctor introduced himself with an irrelevant factoid about having been paralyzed for six months in high school (entirely unrelated to my father’s condition) and then, in full earshot of at least three other bystanders in the lounge, proceeded to browbeat us into his desired course of treatment which differed from the plan that our family had advocated for with other doctors and staff over the previous four days. Each time, I cited the research that my sisters (who by training are an RN/clinical scientist and Phd/associate professor of molecular biology) had located, he simply ignored my points or yelled at me in a booming voice (you’re not the treating doctor, are you? he taunted) instead of explaining his position.

The last straw came when my mom lost her composure and started to cry, telling the doctor that she felt as if he was trying to end my father’s life. I apologized for my mom, explaining that she didn’t mean what she’d said and was reacting to the stress. Instead of letting the comment pass or expressing empathy, the doctor became even more agitated and stood up and bellowed “Ma’am, are you accusing me of trying to kill your husband? I’ll have you know that as a physician, my first directive is to do no harm,” at which point he launched into the first line or two of the Hippocratic Oath which drew stares from others in the public lounge.

This doctor’s conduct stood in stark contrast to that of another doctor whom we’d met earlier that week – the one who helped us develop our desired course of treatment for my father. That doctor came in for a consult on Sunday, and though he was dressed in jeans (appropriate for a weekend), he wore a lab coat over them. After apologizing for his delay, he asked for a few moments to review our father’s file. When he returned, there was no where to sit, since my sisters and I occupied the couch and my mom was on the chair. I offered to bring another chair, but instead, he sat on the toilet seat in the corner (lid closed). He responded to all our questions, discussed the options and at the conclusion, placed the order to initiate the plan.

As I’ve reflected on our experience that last week, I was struck by the rather obvious parallels between the doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationship. Even more, I discovered that so much of what we as lawyers, claim doesn’t matter (or rather, would like to believe doesn’t matter) actually does when we become clients. These are some of the lessons I learned during that terrible week.

1. Dress Matters: I frequently hear lawyers saying that “it doesn’t matter what I wear” or “if clients don’t like that I come dressed in jeans, they should go somewhere else.” Yet, I appreciated the doctor who donned the lab coat in an effort to appear professional, while I was utterly revolted by the slovenly doctor who came stumbling into the lounge. His sloppy dress was downright disrespectful, sending the message that he was so arrogant that he didn’t care enough to clean up for his patients or their families. While I’ll grant that in some locations, dress codes are more relaxed and some clients may be put off by a lawyer in a designer suit, at the same time, a minimum of business casual – nice slacks and/or skirt and a button down shirt and shoes – will be appreciated by clients far more than a thigh-high mini-skirt or sweatshirt and faded jeans.

2. Confidentiality Matters: Although I don’t have a problem with lawyers working from home or at a library or coffeehouse for a change of pace, different rules (as in ethics rules) apply when seeing clients face to face. Even if you’re unable to secure a private room to meet clients, at least try to create a cone of silence by finding a corner table or speaking in a hushed voice. The braying doctor who met with my mom and me in a public lounge was utterly oblivious to our desire for privacy or the sensitive nature of our conversation, in spite of HIPAA requirements which dictate confidentiality. That this doctor appeared to play fast and loose with regulatory requirements not only conveyed a lack of respect, but suggested to me that he might be willing to cut corners elsewhere.

3. Don’t Talk Down to Educated Consumers  I love when my clients do their homework and research cases and ask questions. Yes, it can sometimes get tiresome explaining over and over, for example, why sending 10,000 form letters to FERC is not nearly as effective as drafting a sound, legal viable rehearing requests – but the fact that they bother to ask and make suggestions lets me know that these clients have something vested in the case and will be willing to see it through (and pay what it takes to that end). Of course, if it appears that clients are using research to try to one-up me or try to have me take some unlawful action, I’ll shut them down, but when they ask even the stupidest questions because they’re curious, I’m happy to respond. The first doctor we spoke with took this same approach, patiently guiding us through all the options. By contrast, the second doctor not only ignored my sisters’ and my research but attacked us for “playing doctor.” That’s just not a viable response to today’s well-educated consumer.

4. Be Humble  As lawyers, we have expert knowledge. In many instances, we do know what’s best, legally, for our clients. But many times other things matter too. Like having clients feel as if we listened, and that we did everything possible. That we fought for them instead of against them and treated them as humans with dreams and fears and aspirations – and not tire-kickers or leads en route to making a sales quota.

That arrogant doctor who strutted and bellowed through the public lounge cared so much about his own agenda that he felt compelled to berate my mother to gratify his own ego instead of taking a time-out to empathize. Meanwhile, the doctor who consulted us earlier that week and sat on the toilet seat to talk to us did everything he could to help my father and my family; even taking the worst seat in the room just to spare us from getting up. It’s a small consolation prize in an otherwise awful series of events (because my dad is still gone), but even so, that one small act of kindness mattered more than you could ever imagine.

  • http://davidcwells.me/ DCW

    Excellent post. I’m very sorry for your loss.

    If I might add a pointer to your list, I think a certain amount of empathy for a client’s/patient’s situation is important, along with an ability to not take things personally. It sounds like the rumpled doctor, rather than realizing the highly emotional state you and your family were in, felt a need to defend his professionalism against all attacks. This seems like a singularly bad time for any professional to get defensive. Law, and I assume medicine too, can be a very thankless job, but there is a difference between a disagreement over treatment/strategy and an actual attacks on one’s ability to practice law/medicine. When a client is in an emotionally difficult situation (and it’s hard to imagine one more difficult than yours), the lawyer doesn’t help anything by being thin-skinned.

  • http://twitter.com/joshuamking Josh King

    Carol, what a great post.  Every professional should strive to spend their entire career without EVER invoking the appeal to their professional authority/expertise.  It’s a weak crutch, belittling the other party at the same time it shows them that you’ve got nothing of substance.

  • http://elifementor.com/ Tamar Cerafici

    It’s hard to lose a parent. No doubt you’re bereft. I agree that any client who walks through my door (even my energy clients) are “bereft” in one way or another. They know what direction they want to go. They might know how to get there. But insurmountable obstacles (the system, emotions, etc) require our help to get them through the process. This is where being an advocate becomes vitally important. That means we work to understand our clients’ needs and goals – and use our skill as attorneys to bring them about if possible – if not, we can give them alternative ways to meet those needs and goals – without haranguing them. So unnecessary.  

    My own father died 16 years ago, but his way of dealing with clients – humbly, compassionately, and respectfully – has always influenced me. As a family, we were incredibly lucky to have his doctors treat us and him the same way. I’m so sorry your family had to deal with someone who didn’t get that piece of the Hippocratic oath.

  • Elizabeth Vaughan

    Carolyn, I’m so sorry for your loss, and for the additional trauma inflicted on your  family by that insensitive doctor.  It was brave to share such a personal story for the lessons it gives to all of us.  I hope you are finding the support you need and remembering that good lawyers also take time for themselves when they need it.  You and your family are in my thoughts.

  • Meg

    I’m so sorry to hear about your father.  It sounds like he had an immense positive influence on your family, and that it a great thing.  Please be well during this hard time.

  • Jon

    Great post.  Out of an awful situation you remind us that all that a good bed-side manner and a caring approach to our clients sometimes means far more to them than the ultimate result achieved. 

  • Siouxsie law

    Thanks for blogging this.  I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your dad.   He sounds like a great man.  

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