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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nobody Likes a Know-It-All

You don't have to work in the law for very long to learn that many people like not liking lawyers. In my office, I hear everything from tongue-in-cheek comments emphasized with a wink to angry ramblings about how someone's last attorney screwed up their case, supposedly. I very rarely hear anyone volunteer that he actually likes his attorney, except for the people who do business with my Boss. Even opposing parties have a hard time disliking him.

I read today that a major reason people don't like lawyers is that lawyers are smarter than them, and lay people are jealous of their abilities. I thought we left that line of thinking back in high school, but alas. The fact is, people go to a lawyer precisely because he or she is more knowledgeable and more capable than them when it comes to legal issues. This should be a given.

In my experience, the problem of the too-smart lawyer has a more complex answer than jealousy or inferiority of lay people. First, the field of law attracts intelligent people, especially into the lawyer role. Second, sometimes intelligent people are not happy with just being intelligent... sometimes intelligent people want to make sure everyone else knows they are intelligent. Finally, this group of intelligent people likes to beat everyone else over the head with how much they know and how smart they are. This is not inherently a lawyer problem, but it arises often in the legal profession because of the type of people the law attracts. Simply stated, people just don't like know-it-alls, and there are a lot of know-it-alls in the legal world.

The solution to this is very simple. Lay people do not have to try harder to accept that attorneys outrank them in legal knowledge and sometimes education; I think by and large people already understand this to be a given. But those attorneys (and anyone else, for that matter) who have a deep desire to share their intellectual prowess with others for no reason other than to prove how smart they are probably need to work on toning it down a bit.

My Boss is a fabulous example. I know, because they tell me, that the vast majority of our clients and even opposing parties like him. They find him to be down-to-earth, easy-going, and very honest. He does not talk above them, but he does not obviously "dumb down" the conversation when discussing legal issues with clients. The key, I think, is to talk to people on their level in a way that implies you are also speaking at your own level.

If you are talking above your clients' heads, and if you are making them feel inferior, then you are not properly serving them or their needs.

Some people, it is true, will be very sensitive and may even feel jealous of someone with a certain title and a higher degree. As an intellectual person who has for her own reasons not yet made it to graduate school, I feel that small twinge of jealousy when talking to anyone who has a higher degree than I do, whether it is in business, education, medicine or law. It has little to do with my perception of the other person's intellect or my own. It has much more to do with the fact that I envy the time and/or money he or she had that I have not yet found and the piece of paper that reminds me of a goal I have not yet achieved.

Back to the point, our law firm provides a service to its clients. My attorney does not perch on a pedestal to be admired but rather digs into legal issues with the clients by his side. He has more knowledge of the law than they do, but that knowledge is a resource for clients, not a way of holding himself above them. Thankfully, he is able to speak to them in a way that projects this fact.

My guess is that some of these people who don't like attorneys dislike them not out of jealousy or inferiority, but probably because they had the misfortune of meeting one who wore his intellect on his sleeve.

My completely unresearched suggestion is that you will find quite a few attorneys who, usually unintentionally, make their clients or other lay people feel inferior. Again, this is not an inherent lawyer characteristic, but a consequence of a profession that draws highly educated and intelligent people to it. A certain yet unknown (at least to me) percentage of highly intelligent people have this know-it-all complex.

Knowledge and education are wonderful things when they serve clients' needs, and therefore the firm's needs. But empathy, understanding, and the ability to communicate on the client's level are also necessary parts of meeting these goals.

1 comment:

  1. Good post, Melissa. I'm please to see that your desire to return to "reflection, stories from my life, and an outlet for the thoughts constantly bouncing around in my head" will not diminish your contribution of insight into "paralegal and legal community information, news, ideas and the like." I suspect that for you the two are inextricably intertwined.