The Pursuit of Fairness and Justice: Demonstrating Compassion When Representing Individuals
By Tanya Witt
The Witt Law Firm P.C.
Law is a profession, not just a vocation. As a profession, law owes a responsibility to society. That responsibility is the pursuit of fairness and justice. Fairness and justice are best achieved if each side’s case is vigorously presented by capable, compassionate legal counsel. Many of us in smaller law firm settings represent individuals, not large companies. Compassion is particularly crucial when advocating for fairness and justice on behalf of an individual.
Commentators have noted that the recent economic downturn benefited many smaller law firms. Most of the discussion evolved around the cost-savings smaller firms can offer. Some articles noted that highly skilled attorneys are opting to open small firms to continue providing premier legal services to their clients in a more cost-effective manner. But there is more to the small law firm boom than fees.
I have written in my “Solo View” column for Chicago Lawyer Magazine about how smaller firms are often the first adopters of cutting-edge technology, such as online collaborative databases. Cost savings and cutting-edge technology are two important areas where small firms often excel. But as someone who worked in very large firms before opening my smaller practice, to me the greatest strength of smaller firms is our personal connection with our clients as people. The attorney-client relationship at its core is about that connection. Clients trust that we care.
I concentrate my practice on family law matters in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. In some very contested dissolution of marriage and custody cases the well-being of children is at stake. Clients are understandably emotional and often willing to fight for what is in their children’s best interest. I feel compassion when a parent who has a close relationship with his or her child is being wrongfully denied contact with the child by an ex-spouse as punishment for filing for divorce. Compassion is more than empathy in that compassion includes the strong desire to take action for justice. Compassion is caring combined with effective action.
I have a story to share with you about compassion. Recently, a gentleman retained me to prepare a premarital agreement for him. He had two objectives: to protect his non-marital funds and for both parties to waive the right to maintenance, commonly referred to as alimony. Like most clients, his fiancée and he had already discussed these terms and agreed to them before he approached me. Yet, when his fiancée retained counsel she no longer agreed to the terms. The negotiation process was rigorous and protracted. At one point in negotiations it appeared my client would be better served without an agreement as opposing counsel was requesting that the agreement provide that my client’s non-marital funds were to become marital property. My client did not want to cancel the engagement or damage his relationship so he was considering capitulating. While respecting his commitment to his fiancée, I counseled with him and advocated on his behalf. In the end, we ended up with a premarital agreement that fully satisfied both of his original objectives. He was grateful that I genuinely cared about his legal well-being. Had I not genuinely cared about his objectives and their potential long-lasting impact on his life, he may have just succumbed to his fiancée’s terms. Lack of compassion may have made my job easier as the negotiations were arduous. But I truly wanted my client to achieve his goals. That is why he hired me. Sometimes the difference between winning or losing is not technical skill or experience; it is caring.
I asked several of my colleagues at smaller firms to share with me stories from their practices about the importance of compassion. Susan L. Novosad is a partner with Levin & Perconti, a Chicago law firm concentrating on personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death litigation. Novosad explained the role of compassion in her practice by saying: “I get to know my clients and their families and learn the true impact of their loss. I have been moved to tears during depositions and at trial listening to my client describe what they have been through and the effects the negligence has had on each of them and their families. My goal is to try and alleviate, to the extent possible, their pain. My clients are not looking to me for sympathy they are looking to me with the hope that I can help them to right the wrong.”
Heather A. Begley is an associate at The Law Offices of Jeffrey J. Kroll in Chicago, a firm that represents individuals and families in personal injury and wrongful death actions. Begley’s mother died unexpectedly when she was just 7 years old. Begley explained to me that her loss allows her to better understand what her wrongful death clients are going through. Begley points out, however, that “it is not just life’s negative experiences that create a foundation within us for compassion. An appreciation of the great moments in life is also essential. You develop empathy when you understand the aspects of life a client may be missing out on because of his or her tragic circumstance.”
In solo or small firm practice an attorney usually has discretion as to which clients she will accept. If an attorney does not genuinely care about a client’s legal problems and does not feel she can truly help the client there is probably a better attorney for the job. It is not simply a matter of whether the attorney has the requisite technical skill. Clearly an attorney needs to possess the necessary technical skills. But skill and experience are not enough. To effectively represent an individual, an attorney should have compassion for the client and his legal problem. When clients retain a solo or smaller firm they are doing so because of the individual attorney’s merits and commitment not because of the firm’s name. As a solo or small firm attorney, representing clients can be very meaningful but also entails more individual responsibility.