Old sayings hold wisdom for today’s attorneys

December 23, 2016
President’s Message By Melaine Shannon Rothey

During the winter holiday season, I find myself frequently thinking of my parents, both of whom died more than 15 years ago. Actually, I think of them regularly during every season, but holidays usually bring family together and that often results in “remember when…” conversations. As I have those conversations with my siblings and their spouses, along with my nieces and nephews and my own children, the discussion often leads to Mom and Dad’s old sayings that we did not appreciate as teenagers but came to live by as adults. I would like to share some of them with you, and you will see how, ironically, they apply to our everyday lives as attorneys.

“Clean off your own porch before you try to clean off someone else’s porch.”

As a child, even a teenager, I thought that Mom was literally talking about sweeping or shoveling off our front porch, and I did not understand the underlying meaning of the saying. I have come to realize that this old adage applies in my practice as a family law attorney on a regular basis. I suspect that those of you reading this column can also apply it to your practice. In essence, I believe it equates to “come into court with clean hands or don’t come into court.” As a long-time litigator, primarily in the divorce arena, I realized many years ago that both sides have contributed to the conflict at hand – i.e., it takes two to tango.

In my cases, it is Spouse vs. Spouse, which usually means there is blame on both sides – albeit, sometimes more on one side than the other side. In civil/orphans’ court litigation, it is rare that only one side is completely at fault. Routinely, there are strengths and weaknesses on both sides of a case, and a competent attorney must be able to see not only the strengths in the case, on both sides, but the weaknesses, too, because the weaknesses are what leads us to settle cases.

So – word to the wise – do not fall in love with your case (or your client); rather, advocate on behalf of your client to achieve the best result, which should start with cleaning off your own porch by recognizing the weaknesses in your case.

“Treat others as you want to be treated.”

OK, I agree, Dad did not make this one up himself. Instead, it was the lifelong motto of a devoutly religious man who spent his career as a salesman. He made it very clear to me as a young child that you treat everyone with the utmost respect. It did not matter if he was meeting with the owner of the company or the newly hired purchasing agent – nor did the person’s gender, color or race matter – he walked in the door with a smile on his face and ready for a handshake. Like it or not, as lawyers, we are also in the sales business. We have to sell ourselves to our clients, to the judge, to opposing counsel, to the opposing party and to a jury. At the initial consultation, whether it be a $20,000 case or a $20 million case, we have to make the client feel comfortable with us.

Our clients have to trust us with their financial information, the intimate details of their life/business and their secrets. How do I do that? I do it by explaining the basics of the law, the documents that I will need to go forward, the “goods and the bads” of their case and my hourly rate/retainer. Do not make promises that you cannot keep. I give my advice, but I never guarantee a result. If you are able to guarantee a result, I would like your formula because I want to take it to a craps table in Las Vegas.

Bottom line – pretend this client is your mother or your best friend, knowing that your mother is going to kick your butt or you will lose a best friend if you do not treat the client as you would like to be treated. 

Last one:

“Remember, geese always drop out of the flock formation to help one of their fellow fliers who goes down.”

As a World War II pilot, my dad was the last one out of his plane when it was going down. If not for a bombardier who saw that Dad’s parachute was wedged behind his seat and came back to yank it out and put it on my dad’s lap, he would not have been my dad. So, with all the pressures to bill hours, pay the bills at home, network, participate in the bar association, do pro bono work, coach your kid’s soccer team, be politically aware and active, contribute financially to good causes, I do not want you to forget about your friends and colleagues who, at times in their lives, may need a shoulder to lean/cry on or a hand to help them back on the right path.

At times, this profession can induce us to pay more attention to our clients than to the foundational relationships in our lives. Don’t forget to support the people who support you. Don’t forget to support the people who support you. Be there for your friend or colleague as long as you are needed.

Again, when I am in charge of the world…