Educating the Public…And The Jury
If you read my blogs regularly, whether for lack of anything better to do or the need to fall asleep quickly, you have probably noticed that I like to explain complicated legal concepts so that non-lawyers can understand them.
I enjoy teaching. It also helps me understand those concepts, by forcing me to break them down into digestible bites.
Where does this love for teaching come from, and how do I apply it to my practice?
How I Got Here
I’ve been a lawyer since 1990. For the first six years of my career, I worked for others at two different law firms. Then, in 1996, I opened a solo practice. But about 2002, I got the itch to teach. Granted, my original plan in college had been to maybe become a college professor, but I realized I couldn’t afford the time away from my job to go and get a PhD in History. So I decided to try teaching high school instead. I enrolled in graduate school and earned a Master of Arts in Teaching while continuing my law practice.
I spent two plus years teaching high school in underprivileged areas of Chicago. Then, I moved to teaching 8th (and later 7th) grade, also in a less-privileged area. Although my certificate was for Social Studies, that didn’t stop good old Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from switching me to Language Arts and Reading right before school started for the 8th graders.
Despite not being qualified to teach that subject, I was quite good at it.
But teaching is stressful. I liken it (only partly jokingly) to like being on trial seven times a day with a jury that talks back to you and gets into fights with each other.
In many ways, it tested my abilities, challenged my assumptions, and forced me to make split second adjustments on the fly multiple times a day.
It was those adjustments that I now apply to my practice.
Teaching Clients About Law
Teaching made crystal clear to me what should be obvious to every person; each person learns differently and carries different life experiences and explicit and implicit biases with them in digesting and making sense of information.
Things as simple as an example in my “Street Law” class of a spectator getting hit by a foul ball at a baseball game, and whether the ticket stub’s “waiver” language protects the club from liability highlighted the fact that literally no one in the class had ever been to a baseball game in person.
Something many of us take for granted was something that my students simply couldn't relate to or understand. They had never seen a ticket stub before, never been in a baseball stadium, or contemplated such a situation.
While there were hundreds of other ways in which my life experiences differed vastly from those of my students, the central lesson was to awaken me to the fact that in the larger world, this would be true for most people.
I had to make a better attempt to understand what my clients, insurance adjusters, defense lawyers, and jurors knew or assumed before feeding them information.
Learning Styles and Communication
Some of my clients prefer communicating by phone. Others prefer text. Some like email. Many reach out to me regularly while others prefer that I reach out to them. Some love documentation while others don’t.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but we all learn differently. Some are visual learners, others learn better by experiencing things. A great example would be how my wife has great spatial skills while I am lucky not to get lost in the shower. Yet if you give her a street address, it is about as useful as having me prepare your taxes.
What I am good at is writing and using words. Not everyone likes to read. So I’ve had to tailor my delivery of information to the audience. Clients who work in the trades tend to be very visually-gifted but not too interested in reading a long email. So I trim my texts or emails and create bullet points. I make flow charts to explain the litigation process to them more easily. And I often pick up the phone because that’s the best way to communicate information to them.
This also applies to opposing counsel, insurance adjusters, and others against whom I am pitted. I pay attention to how people respond to me and whether they tend to like emails or phone calls. Believe it or not, some still prefer mailed letters.
I wish I could say I have a cool Excel spreadsheet that stores these preferences, but no, I just keep it filed in my mostly-vacant brain and remember how to best reach people. I’ve had cases settled by email on Saturday evening with opposing lawyers, and yet have had other lawyers never respond to a significant email for weeks. When in doubt, I’ll take the belt-and-suspenders approach and use multiple forms of communication to reach people.
People far smarter than I am have written and spoken in great detail about the differences in the various generations and how they learn and communicate, the length of their attention spans, and learning styles. One example is how most baby boomers can follow a detailed oral story, whereas Gen Z would be poking their eyes out after a minute or so.
We lawyers had better know how to reach everyone on a jury panel, or else our clients suffer for our lack of knowledge.
I am always telling a story, but how I tell that story varies depending on the audience.
- My teaching career taught me that people learn and communicate in many different ways
- I’ve learned to apply that to my law practice and vary my communication strategies to tailor them to the intended audience
- Our life experiences are hugely varied, and a good lawyer will understand how to find common ground with a wide variety of people
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