Under Analysis: My thoughts from the mountaintop

Spencer Farris, The Levison Group

I spent a week away from the Levison Towers in the mountains of Wyoming. I returned to find mountains of paper on my desk and messages in my email box, along with several dozen voicemails. I left the practice of law for a week, but no one else in town got the memo that it was break time.

This is my constant experience as a solo trial lawyer. I hate leaving the office because of all the things I know will be waiting when I return. When I was an associate at a large firm, I feared that I wouldn’t be missed at all and the firm would realize that I was superfluous. Given the choice between the two fears, I’m not sure which is worse.

It is no secret that I am starting my 50th trip around the sun (I know, exit through the gift shop) and I have been more introspective than normal. Working on my lawyer skills has been on my mind. I was fortunate to spend the week at the Trial Lawyers College, hosted at Gerry Spence’s Thunderhead Ranch. Mr. Spence has long been on my heroes list. Flamboyant, daring and seemingly fearless, Spence’s career is full of amazing trials. While I often think I have tried the same case 100 times, he has gone beyond the boundaries with each “May it please the court.” The notion of capturing a little bit of his magic was inspiration enough to get me on a plane to Jackson Hole.

So, for the last week, I worked on techniques which are never discussed at law schools. When we enter law school, we are indoctrinated with the Socratic method, or how to think like a lawyer. For most, this means to stop thinking like a human. Be analytical, not emotional. My client interviews were filled with interruptions as I doggedly tried to fill out forms and get the facts of the case instead of hearing the stories. One of the mottos of the Trial Lawyers College, or TLC, is that to be a better lawyer you must first be a better person. My initial thought was that my clients are truly doomed.

Much of the week was spent stripping away the veneers that 21 years of practicing law have layered upon me. Too many times I’ve stepped into the courtroom as “middle-aged lawyer man” instead of “Spencer, a middle-aged human being practicing law.” I am not ashamed of the fact that I identify myself as a trial lawyer, and court room battles leave scars. The lawyer veneer is a protective callous from the slings and arrows of courtroom warfare. Unfortunately, it is also a barrier to feeling and connecting with the other human beings in the courtroom.

I took my standard issue cynicism in my carry-on to Wyoming. While I tried to have an empty cup to receive the TLC teachings, the little voice in the back of my head was scoffing at a weeklong diet of touchy-feely jibber jabber. I am much better at carrying cynicism than a Buddhist’s empty cup.

During the first couple days of TLC, the little voice got louder. Folks stood in the middle of a circle and shared their lives. The common thread was one of brokenness and pain. We are all a little cracked and broken, I thought. But we are trial lawyers, not victims. Let it go. Be fearless.

Eventually it came my turn inside the circle. Dropping the protective coating on my life left me feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable. I didn’t like it. Being in the safe presence of so many broken yet amazing trial lawyers emboldened me, but one week of experience has a hard time competing with three years of law school and two decades of practice. I talked about the things trial lawyers don’t dare reveal. My fears. My insecurities. My inner demons. Unexpectedly, I felt closer to my fellow broken human beings than I thought possible.

I can’t really describe what triggered it, but in the midst of discussing the case I took to work on, I began to experience my client’s fears as well. His pain and uncertainty evolved from a bundle of facts into a story. I felt a palpable change. While we worked on our cases, I watched mock trials go from lawyerly factual recitations to living stories of human beings.

In the end, trial lawyers are storytellers huddled around a campfire. The good ones bring their experiences to life amidst the crackle and glow. The great ones share their client’s experiences as fully as if they were their own.

I left middle-aged lawyer man back in Wyoming. I’m going to miss him a little. Hopefully my clients won’t. In any event, I plan to be at the next trial without armor or fear. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.

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