How legal practice is like working retail
“Have you got your blade?” the leader asked, as we walk past the hoes on the corner.
“Yep,” I replied, drawing out my box cutter.
I’d gone from a $200-plus per-hour job just a few months prior to a $200 per-week part-time job in the garden center at a home improvement big box retail store to fill my time in retirement—that’s after 30 years in mostly employment-based immigration law.
It was a short-term seasonal stint for the spring. I had no experience in gardening, other than turning clients “green” by moving them from temporary nonimmigrant status to more permanent “green card” status; but customer service was much the same at the garden center. I also enjoyed the manual labor after years of sitting at my desk all day.
“What’s the difference between this $59 hose and the $49 one?” a customer gruffly asked me, as if the store were sneaking in a gouging.
“The extra $10 is due to triple insulation,” I replied, showing him the differing descriptions on the packages.
“Oh,” he said.
Yep, I thought, not unlike reading a regulation to a client—it requires no interpretation, but rather, focusing on the plain words. Sometimes all a lawyer needs to do is state the obvious.
“When should I fertilize this plant?” another customer asked.
“The fertilizer says once every 60 days,” I replied.
“But how do I know when it was last fertilized?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t know either,” I said.
Analyzing the problem, I suggested, “It’s worse to overfertilize than underfertilize. If you’re assuming that the plant comes in fertilized, deduct about two weeks for packaging—transit et al.—toward the date of your first application.”
“Thanks! You’re a problem-solver!”
Yep, that’s what we lawyers do.
“How much soil do I need for this pot?” a customer asked.
I picked up a bag of soil and put it in the pot. Then another and another.
“Looks like three bags will surround your plant, which has some soil already around its root ball,” I said. “Together they will fill the pot.”
Logical thinking is a hallmark of effective lawyering. I might have calculated the pot’s 1.5 gallon capacity, versus the 32 ounce content of the bags, subtracting an estimate for the root ball, but I’m no mathematician. And it’s so much more convincing to do a visual exhibit.
Lawyers are good at persuasion, and that comes in many forms. As an immigration lawyer, I didn’t perform courtroom demos like the one with the soil—my practice was all about paperwork—filings to adjudicatory bodies for the most part.
For clients, I had to make things understandable and make sure we had sufficient evidence to go forward. For adjudicatory bodies, I had to meet a burden of proof for eligibility, meeting sometimes fuzzy or discretionary standards.
“How often do I water this plant?’’ a customer asked.
“The tag says, ‘keep moist.’ It depends on temperature, light, time of year, etc., how fast it will dry out,” I said. “So, test it by dipping your finger into the soil, as it may vary from watering it every three days in summer to once a week in winter.”
The response, “it depends” is always a good advice in legal scenarios when variable factors could affect the outcome.
“Which snake repellent is best: powder or liquid?” a customer asked.
“Well, both are effective. Where do you plan to use it—between rocks or along a lawn?” I responded, employing legal client questioning techniques to ferret out the full facts to ascertain the client’s situation, needs and the actual problem before proposing any solution.
Some questions require no answer at all, but rather, more questions to help the customer or legal client decide between equally applicable alternatives.
Anticipating customer-client needs
“Where are your weed killers?” a customer asked.
“Go through the sliding doors, turn left and walk along the wall. Follow your nose and you’ll smell the poison when you get close,” I said, intending to deter any need for the customer to return, crabbily complaining that the sought product is not there, when they simply did not walk far enough down the aisle. Good lawyers will give precise directions and anticipate how the client might go astray.
In other instances, the core issue is not what they’re asking; it’s why. A middle-aged lady with her hair styled in a beehive bun wheeled in to ostensibly get bags of soil. The first words she spoke were to tell me her daughter was outside and anxious to go.
Then, she dithered and dithered over types of soil. My back and arms were starting to ache from loading and unloading bags onto a flatbed cart, as she changed her mind, back and forth, from one type to another. Finally, I realized she was purposefully delaying making a choice, as did some clients who withheld necessary documents to go forward on a case.
When this occurs, there is sometimes a third factor at work that the lawyer is not aware of and often it’s a personal factor. It reminds me of the time an immigrating fellow resisted providing his marriage documents for inclusion of his spouse in his green card application.
I had no indication of trouble in their marriage, but he was afraid she’d split as soon as the green cards were issued. As he dragged his feet, she lost patience and did split, and that’s when the reason for delay came to light.
Similarly, I intuited that “Aunt Bee” was extending the transaction because she wanted more time with her daughter. So I took a seat on the pile of soil bags and simply chatted with Aunt Bee during her decision-making process until the daughter showed up and started loading the soil.
Then I engaged the daughter in our conversation to extend her time with her mother. While a string of pearls didn’t adorn Aunt Bee’s throat, it was a Mayberry moment in the garden center, and I got to be Andy Griffith (Sheriff Taylor), able at the time to affect a reconciliation between the townsfolk.
Sometimes, it takes the skill of a lawyer to render good customer service. Once, a customer berated me for the store’s failing to have its plant specialist on duty late in the evening. She expected the store to have a specialist on staff at all hours. I controlled myself from engaging in a losing argument because the customer’s “always right” in retail.
Though, if it were law, I’d have a duty to argue back, and I’d have pointed out that she was shopping in a big box store and not a dedicated nursery and might want to compare prices between the two. Not unlike law, customers demand more service than they’re willing to pay for.
Customers and clients need to realize their attitude can affect the level of service they receive. Lawyers can fire clients, but hourly workers can simply avoid certain customers and render themselves unhelpful.
The public may have concern about the lack of respect accorded to low-wage employees, but lawyers are disrespected, too—too often, by late payment of their bills or being stiffed altogether. It is denigrating to have to “beg” for payment, whereas the hourly laborer is at least guaranteed his or her wage.
So much for compare and contrast; sometimes the roles blended. On my last day, mulch was on sale, and customers were buying more than they could fit in their cars. I consoled one customer concerned about whether her receipt would be honored on a return trip: “Lady, I am a registered attorney in this state, and I will protect your right to 10 bags of mulch.”
Margaret Makar recently retired after 30 years in the practice of business immigration law. Volunteering at Colorado’s Cherry Creek State Park off-leash dog park kept her sane and exercised during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now fully vaccinated, she’s looking forward to new adventures.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”