Poulsbo is a quaint town of about 9500 people and a drive of about one hour and a half from Seattle. It’s a Scandinavian seaport fishing town located right on the salt water.
In 1983 I received the “Small Town Lawyer Made Good” award from the Poulsbo Bar Association. The award was the brainchild of Paulsbo lawyer Jeff Tolman. As I recall, the Poulsbo Bar Association had approximately 13 members at the time. However, Jeff had created this award and then was successful in talking some nationally known people to travel to Poulsbo to receive the award and participate in the daylong seminar as well. The guests who agreed to show up included several members of the United States Supreme Court, Gerry Spence and local lesser-known lawyers like me. Lawyers came from all over the state to attend the seminar and listen to the person Jeff had induced to come to Poulsbo.
I bring this up because it represents to me a picture of what a lawyer should represent. Here was this creative lawyer in a small town who managed to establish a seminar involving some prominent people who were willing to travel in some cases a great distance to participate in a gathering of other lawyers . Everyone had a good time and it was educational as well. He had done some important good work for the community and the bar. So, I got to thinking about lawyers and what they should be like. Here are some rambling thoughts.
Some years ago there was an article in the Alaska Bar newsletter written by an Alaska lawyer about why he became a lawyer. He said that his father was a lawyer and that he would, on occasion, go to court to watch his father. One time he was there during a trial against another lawyer who was disliked by his father and the feeling was mutual. The other lawyer had cross-examined a witness and as he came back to counsel he leaned over and said to his father in a stage whisper: “How did you like that, you little pissant.” His father reached up, grabbed his opponent by the necktie, pulled him to the table and the two of them begin rolling around on the floor while the judge was banging his gavel. He said: “That’s when I knew I wanted to become a lawyer.”
One description of the role of a lawyer is to: “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Some people see the role of the lawyer like the story about W. C. Fields, the famous comedian of the 1930s who was a well-known atheist. One day someone saw him reading the Bible and asked him why he was reading the Bible. He said: “looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes!”
Many years ago I participated in seminars about law office management with a number of lawyers from around the country. One of them was Harris Morgan from Greensville Texas. Harris spoke about attorney fees. The story he would tell was that his father was a lawyer and that as a young man he would work at his office. He would overhear his father talk to clients about the fee. He said his father would tell the client: “Mrs. Smith I’m so delighted that you have enough confidence in me to hire me as your lawyer. I intend to do the very best I possibly can for you. However, there is one thing you should know about my limitations. I can only concentrate on one thing at time. Therefore, we need to talk about the fee so I won’t be distracted while I’m representing you.” Harris would use this story to emphasize that it was essential the lawyer brought the fee up first, had a clear understanding about the fee and costs and confirmed it in writing as well.
As to fees, the famous Texas criminal defense lawyer Percy Forman was fond of saying: “I never charged a client more than he had.”
One thing I do know about being a trial lawyer is that if you want to be loved, find another field of practice. It’s not your role to please other people, be loved by your opponent or the judge. It is your role to do the very best for your client you are capable of doing within the rules. As Harry Truman has said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.” If you want to be loved as a trial lawyer, buy a dog.
I realize there’s little here that is helpful, but I thought I’d pass it on anyway. Next time I’ll use something practical.