Keeva on Life and Practice

What's The Story?

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Consider this story, told to me a few years ago, about something that happened years before that. Here’s how I recounted it in my book, Transforming Practices:

The 5-year-old said it. He had been in the courtroom for the entire trial, three days in the front row of the visitors’ gallery with his older brothers and sisters. All five were orphans now that a car accident had taken their mother away. Wounded into silence, the youngest sat through it all–through the lawyers’ openings, through detailed expert testimony and accident reconstructions–never saying a word. Only waiting.

When the lawyers finally made their closing remarks, he sensed that maybe the wait would end soon. All their talk of “wrongful death,” “liability” and “preponderance of evidence” meant nothing. He needed an answer.

So did Irwin Stolz. The lawyer for the mother’s estate, Stolz wanted to do right by the kids. Regardless of what they got–assuming the jury found in the estate’s favor–their road through life was not going to be easy. The best he could hope for was to provide some damage control. Money could help some, maybe ease the pain just a little. He finished his closing and began preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best.

When the Rome, Ga., jury finally filed back into the courtroom, Stolz, at the counsel table, was intensely aware of the five stony faces directly behind him. The foreman read the verdict: “for the plaintiff,” and Stolz was flooded with a sense of relief; now he could turn and face the children without hesitation.

The little boy was already standing. As Stolz left the well, the child approached. He looked up with big, needy eyes. “Does this mean my mama didn’t do anything wrong?” he asked.

Stolz began to cry. “It just tore me up,” he recalls years later. “You try to do the best you can, and here it turns out that all that time he thought that maybe his mother had done something wrong.”
This happens all the time: Clients come to lawyers immersed in their own private narratives, which may concern their sense of themselves, feelings about their most significant relationships, and other things they care about, love or fear. They don’t necessarily understand what it all means and what role it plays in the drama they’re going through. But that’s rarely discussed because clients–and, too often, lawyers–focus exclusively on the legal claim, and neglect to explore how those issues relate to the client’s story.

Stolz, who went on to sit on the Georgia Court of Ap­peals and to co-found an Atlanta law firm, told me he was grateful for the lessons he learned in Rome that day. The experience sensitized him to the importance of the stories that clients bring into the legal system. After all, who knew what was riding on the trial for that child? Knowing sooner, Stolz would have had a chance to soothe him by explaining what was really happening. For me, that little boy stands for the powerful personal narratives that clients bring into lawyers’ offices but rare­ly share. Instead, they tell only what they think they’re expected to tell: the facts they think will bear on the legal claim.

From Another Field

recently, i became aware of a development in medicine that, I think, sheds some light on the role of story in lawyers’ and clients’ lives. The Narrative Medicine move­ment began with the work of Rita Charon, M.D., at Co­lumbia University Medical School, but is now making strides throughout the country. It’s a way of teaching aspiring physicians how to pay attention to what their pa- tients are saying, whether the message is direct or is of­fered obliquely through various narrative cues.

In the medical world, it is often noted that up to 85 percent of a diagnosis can be determined by listening to a patient’s story.

Charon, who has been a guest lecturer in NYU’s intensive lawyering program, is very clear about the value of narrative competence in the legal profession as well. “We are looking at the skills you need in order to hear efficiently, to enter the narrative as depicted by a person with chest pain, on the one hand, or someone who was just evicted–or fired for being gay–on the other.”

Students of Narrative Medicine–that is, those attempt­ing to bring it into their clinical medical practices–often keep what Charon calls parallel charts. In addition to the traditional chart, which is used to record a patient’s clinical prog­ress, a second chart is used to describe, in essay form and in nontechnical language, the student’s own feelings, observations and experiences. Many physicians find that keeping parallel charts gives them a better sense of their patients’ needs.

The “diagnosis,” whether a description of a patient’s physical, emotional and/or relational health, or an equally holistic description of a client’s legal situation, can only be achieved if the practitioner takes the time to listen.

The truth is that the legal profession–with the possible exception of medicine and the clergy–is unsurpassed in the narrative richness it offers. Wise lawyers know this. They understand that neglecting to explore clients’ narrative realities in as much detail as possible deprives them and their clients of a rewarding experience.

“The value of the narrative approach,” says Edward Shapiro, a partner at Chicago’s Much Shelist and a self-avowed holistic lawyer, “is that it provides the additional benefit of the personal interaction with the lawyer at the time the story is being told. That is, the feeling of being heard, understood and acknowledged. This builds trust and also could have the effect of letting the client look at the problem from different angles.”

Steven Keeva, an assistant managing editor, is the auth­or of Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfac­tion in the Legal Life.

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