The Atlanta Lawyer March 2015 - Page 10

ACYL Side Bar The Lawyer as Counselor By J. Wickliffe Cauthorn Cauthorn Nohr & Owen jwc@cauthornnohr.com U ntil the 1970s or 1980s, the vast majority of women and men who enrolled in law schools sought not to get a position with a prestigious corporate law firm in a sexy urban area; but instead, to become a member of the guild. Earning a law degree and becoming a member of the bar gave a professional person access to a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge to understand the ins and outs of the common law legal system. With that knowledge, a lawyer was expected to be a professional counselor. Everyone who wants to practice law should read Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Trial by Franz Kafka. Dickens’ litigants in the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce sacrifice their entire lives and their futures expecting great returns. In the end, they were merely pawns in the great pageantry of protracted litigation. Kafka’s protagonist, Josef K., is awakened one morning and informed that he is under arrest. His lawyer is a buffoon who does not guide him through the process, and only complicates matters by giving Josef no hope. For Josef K., his arrest is never explained, and his trial is long and incomprehensible. The important take away from both Dickens and Kafka is the use of the legal system as a symbol of an opaque, absurd, and arbitrary reality that has no meaning. Why is the legal system the metaphor that these authors use? Because this is precisely the experience the layperson has when confronted with our profession. In “The Path of the Law,” Oliver Wendell Holmes described the law as “The prophecies of what the courts will do in fact.” He illustrated his point by presenting the lawyer as a type of soothsayer: lawyers learn to read the “oracles” (treatises, statutes, caselaw, etc.), and predict what will happen to a person when confronted with a given set of facts. For the uninitiated, Holmes’ imagery is apropos; the law seems to be indecipherable. So what’s my point? As an attorney, you’re supposed to be the person who can read the tea leaves. You’re supposed 10 THE ATLANTA LAWYER March 2015 to be the member of your community who can guide the Josef K.s of the world through the arbitrariness of our legal system. Yes, specialization is important. In today’s day and age, when you live in a large urban area, it’s important to have a specific marketable skill set and a vast knowledge of a small area of the law such that you position yourself as an expert within the legal profession. Specialization protects you because as your knowledge grows, you become a valuable asset to your firm. Specialization at the expense of your community, however, does a disservice to our profession. Knowing the ins and outs of OSHA regulations won’t help your sister at 3 AM on a Saturday when your nephew has been arrested. Understanding all of the newest tax incentives available in a railroad merger doesn’t help your neighbor understand an insurance policy. Being able to calculate the Federal Sentencing Guidelines in your head isn’t going to help your best friend when his grandfather needs a simple will or power of attorney before tomorrow morning’s heart surgery. As lawyers, we should be counselors to our friends and family in times of fear and crisis. We should be available to give competent legal advice in a wide variety of areas. Should everyone be able to try a mass tort case and draft a joint venture, no, but everyone should be able to help their sister understand the basic process of an arrest and criminal prosecution; everyone should be able to help their neighbor interpret a basic contract; and everyone should be able to draft basic documents that are used by average people on an average day. The point I’m making is that the most appreciated legal advice you give won’t be to a high paying client, it will be to a friend or neighbor with a real problem who needs real advice. Don’t allow the idea of a lawyer as counselor die. Be a counselor to your community. Use your basic legal education. If you don’t know something off of the top of your head, you know how to read the oracles. You are the person in the best position to give the best advice to those close to you. They depend on it. The Official News Publication of the Atlanta Bar Association