I will never forget my first Christmas as a married couple – I was a new lawyer and my husband was a surgical resident.

The week before Christmas, it started.  Every day, my husband would come home from work with an armful of gifts.  And I’m not talking about a cookie tray or a bottle of wine.  These were very personal gifts.  For example, one patient knitted him a blanket while another handcrafted a wooden bowl.  As if those weren’t over the top already, one patient actually composed an original song, with our names in it and everything, to celebrate our recent marriage.  The abundance of gratitude for my husband healing them and often, saving their lives, was overwhelming and humbling. 

In contrast to this beautiful expression of thanks, my bag that week before Christmas was filled with the usual legal briefs, deposition transcripts or even worse, Excel spreadsheets.  While we had office parties with our colleagues, there was no great outpouring of thanks from my clients.  My law firm colleagues and I were lucky if we received a desk calendar from the local court reporter company we used. Or maybe a generic Christmas card. 

Lawyers taking the time to listen to client needs.

I started thinking about why there was such a sharp contrast in the way clients view their lawyers versus the way patients view their doctors.  Lawyers are often helping clients with stressful, life-altering events.  I wondered if it was due to the legal bills, the inherently contentious nature of litigation, or the feeling that there are no wins – just compromises.   It was probably all of these things to a certain degree.

I started wondering would clients feel more gratitude for the work we do if we started treating them more like patients?  Doctors spend a tremendous amount of time with patients, listening to them, hearing about the intimate details of their life, and being a shoulder to cry on in the darkest days. 

Putting clients before paperwork.

As lawyers, do we spend the same amount of time helping manage the stress of litigation?  For example, when a client comes to us with a case, do we take the time to explain the nature of litigation and the stresses that come with it before proceeding?  Or are we too busy dealing with conflict checks, client contracts, and billing issues?  Do we clearly outline the chances of success so our clients can make a reasoned cost-benefit analysis?  Or are we too busy with other routine matters such as notices of appearance or stipulations to extend times?  I have come a long way from my days as a young lawyer with my little holiday desk calendar.  What I have learned over the years is that everything comes down to relationships.  I may never experience the gratitude a doctor rightfully receives for extending a life – a truly miraculous gift. 

But I do know that taking the time to really get to know my clients is an important part of building that relationship.  I realize that prioritizing people may be a tough thing for many lawyers to do with all the day-to-day filing responsibilities and deadlines.  But now, with so many tools at our disposal, we should be maximizing our client interactions and minimizing our paperwork.  Most important, we need to take the time to listen to our clients and learn about their needs.  It goes a long way to creating a sense of trust and often, gratitude.

Maria Syms

Maria Syms

Maria started her career as a lawyer in the early nineties at a D.C. international law firm. She worked on a clunky WANG computer that was far from “user-friendly”. Having ridden the technology wave (both good and bad), Maria understands how the right technology can be used to create value and grow your business. Maria practiced as a partner in a law firm representing multinational corporations, an Assistant United States Attorney and an Assistant Attorney General. She was also an elected Arizona lawmaker. Maria holds a Master’s degree from Harvard, a law degree from American University and a bachelor’s degree from Smith College. She is a member of the Arizona, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and D.C. bars.