Lawyers, Dr. House, and My Practice
Remember House, M.D.? The long running TV show about the prickly genius Dr. Gregory House who could solve the riddle of almost any infectious disease, sometimes from the barest of evidence. Great show – it was a perfect combination of medical and detective themes with a compelling protagonist (if not an anti-hero).
Over last week I was dealing with a family medical issue – all under control, thank you – but it led to a few hospital visits; a lot of waiting around in hospital waiting rooms; and a cold, uncomfortable night sleeping in one of those vinyl-covered reclining chairs in the hospital room. I had plenty of time to think, and one of the things I thought about was the difference between doctors and lawyers.
That was probably inevitable, sitting and watching the day to day workings of the hospital, the interaction between the members of the staff, the way doctors and nurses relate to patients and, just as importantly, families.
It was, at times, fascinating. Hospitals have been under increasing pressure over the last few years to improve their ‘customer service.’ To talk more, explain more, be more responsive to the needs of patients and visitors. Judging from my experience over the last week or so, it’s working. I can only assume this has something to do with lawyers suing the industry, or maybe it’s just friendly competition, or maybe both.
Then I come back to House. Dr. House. I just looked up House on IMDb, the show was on for eight seasons, 176 episodes. It was nominated for dozens of Emmys, written about quite often. The words used to describe Hugh Laurie’s character were always variations on these: “an acerbic infectious disease specialist … Flawless instincts and unconventional thinking help earn House great respect, despite his brutal honesty and antisocial tendencies.”
Antisocial being the operative word. Type in Dr. House and antisocial in Google and you’ll get 1,350,000 results in less than a second.
It occurs to me that, despite his brilliant mind and analytical talents, Dr. House would have made an awful attorney.
You see, as a doctor – better yet the head of a team of diagnostic types – House can get what he needs to make a diagnosis (the first step to a cure) by relying on medical tests and his staff interviewing patients … with emphasis on the tests. House’s contact with patients can – and it is usually a very good idea that it is – limited. He is not good with them. Counterproductive is a nice way of putting it.
That’s what struck me about my profession. Antisocial can’t cut it, particularly in the divorce field. Being an effective divorce attorney means meaning an effective listener. Being an effective listener means having people skills and, above all, non-judgmental empathy.
In law, there are no tests to run to get an idea of what direction to go in. There’s only the client. The client who needs to feel comfortable enough with their attorney to tell them everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as they say. – and divorce has usually got it all.
Stay with me for a short tangent – I was dropping my daughter off at her summer childcare this week – a great program that we both love – when I had a quick back and forth with one of the staff about not knowing my access code. She, wanting to feel “right” (and she probably was), made an offhand remark to me that I found slightly offensive. She didn’t mean anything by it, and was likely frustrated with watching a ton of crazy little kids, and was probably just experiencing that knee-jerk reaction we all have to protect our ego. But the quick comment she made irritated me for about 10 minutes…maybe longer…seeing as how I’m writing about it now.
That brief exchange got me thinking about the power of language, and how we use it. When do we use it deliberately, and when do we use it completely without thinking about first, second, third, or forth order effects? I have divorce clients I work with all the time, who are in the toughest of circumstances, under tremendous pressure, and their life and identity are basically coming unhinged at the moment. I do catch myself from time to time, spinning off remarks unintentionally, like this lady did, without considering the impact, but I try not to. You can’t just take people at the lowest points of their life, start spinning off casual or blunt remarks, or try to protect your ego, and not expect some negative consequences.
This family member I mentioned received some similar Dr. House-like, off the cuff advice from a medical professional – You’d have to put a gun to my head to do that procedure. The second opinion was basically – Hey, no problem, I’ve done many of these, and I do it all the time. However the damage had already been done. No amount of reassuring was going to completely undo the anxiety and stress that simmered for months. However a very successful procedure did just that. The overall experience with the hospital, staff, and doctors was very good.
What we’ve done at our firm recently is tried to give our clients as much documented, carefully considered information as possible. Not “winging-it,” not making stuff up as we go, but providing clients with clear invoicing, clear access to case deadlines, and clear opinion letters on key issues. I know that under the stress of live events like divorce, information is not always received clearly, so we’ve worked hard to improve that process. Watching Dr. House write opinion letters to his clients would have made a terrible, and much less humorous TV show, but in the real world, being blunt to the point of traumatizing clients is just bad for business. It’s like the jokes my family knows me for, where the punchline is only funny to me…but I’m working on it.