You may recall an article I wrote as “the Australian prospective law student”. A year and a half into my law degree at the Queensland University of Technology, I have returned to once again shadow attorney H. Van Smith for another three weeks over my winter break. Less than 24 hours after arriving in the United States, I returned to find the office I had helped to furnish just 18 months prior full of hustling attorneys and paralegals alike, evidence of the exponential growth seen at Smith Strong in the last two years. Below I discuss my experiences, in the context of what I have learned in law school.
A Day in The Life
Each morning began with the Wall Street Journal and a cup of coffee. After this, the practice of law commences for Van and his team.
Smith Strong’s focus on client satisfaction is evident from the moment you set foot in the office. Three times each week, Van meets with all attorneys and paralegals to discuss each and every active matter. After assessing the next steps for each case, tasks are delegated and notes updated. The commitment of each team member to attend these meetings religiously is one of the many factors that Van attributes to the success of Smith Strong, PLC.
Over my three-week internship, I observed everything from initial consultations and teleconferences to case preparation/strategy meetings, and of course the ensuing trials. I also spent time observing the back-end systems and people behind the firm. Although their duties are not always the most glamorous, these people keep the wheels turning, and enable the attorneys to focus solely on clients and their matters. Either by settlement or trial, each matter eventually comes to a resolution. I was captivated as Van and others planned their approach to different matters at both the negotiating table or before a court of law. It was in these situations where I could sense the legal minds of the attorneys ticking as they skillfully navigated the nuanced circumstances of each dispute while advocating for their clients. Two concepts that became particularly apparent on a regular basis were active listening and constructive negotiation.
The human element of practicing law is magnified in family matters, as each case has a backstory that must be understood. I found myself observing attorney-client communication frequently, noting the emphasis placed on active listening. Boulle and Alexander (2012) note that active listening as a concept consists of four key elements: attending, by being with the client physically and psychologically, ensuring that they feel heard; following, which involves indicating your understanding; reflecting, which involves the listener providing feedback as they interpret what has been said; and finally acknowledging, by being empathetic and understanding, (as opposed to sympathetic). I noted each attorney’s ability to briefly summarise a client’s issue by recapping the key points, and identifying the dominant feelings at play. The attorneys often had to “reframe” emotionally charged statements in a way that helped the client think through the situation more analytically. A high level of emotional intelligence proves very useful in the practice of family law.
Incidentally, having just completed a dispute resolution class at my university, I was aware that in negotiation, parties establish target points to reflect their aspirations, and resistance points which reflect their respective boundaries of agreement. The overlap between these points is described in literature as the ‘zone of possible agreement’ (Menkel-Meadow, 1984). I observed many negotiations throughout my short time at Smith Strong, PLC and sought to identify the respective positions of the parties. Additionally, negotiators ideally also identify the underlying interests of the parties—meaning, the psychological reasoning behind these positions, concerned less with what an individual wants, and instead why they want it. A salient piece of advice I received from attorney Heidi Lewis was to “have as much information as possible before going in to…anything.” Naturally, this allows an individual to be more effective as a lawyer and counsel in all facets of a matter.
Being able to understand and acknowledge the underlying interests driving the parties to hold such positions allows for greater creativity, and naturally better solutions. Despite common beliefs and stereotypes about those who practice law, there is significant creativity required to empower two disputants to reach a settled agreement. This is particularly relevant in the bargaining phase of negotiating. Van acknowledges this fact, and explained the importance of only scheduling relevant teleconferences for certain times in the day, because “you’ve always got to allow some energy for creativity.” I was impressed as problem after problem was resolved.
The Closing Call
Sitting in on a closing call highlighted the reason I was drawn to practice law in the first place. Hearing the relief and satisfaction of a client exemplifies the rewarding side of the profession. In closing myself, I would like to extend my gratitude to the team at Smith Strong, PLC and particularly Van, for allowing me to learn from them, and ensuring once again that I was well looked after and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Richmond. I look forward to seeing Smith Strong, PLC grow and change over the coming months and years as I work towards completing my degree--and who knows, perhaps I’ll return again one day.
P.S. Thank you to Attorney David Mitchell for your patience with this helpful tidbit—when adding consecutive exhibits in a binder, you do not need to unclip and reclip the binder rings each time. It’s the small things!
Menkel-Meadow, Carrie, ‘Toward Another View of Legal Negotiation: The Structure of Problem Solving’ (1984) UCLA Law Review 3, 754.
Laurence Boulle and Nadja Marie Alexander ‘Mediation: skills and techniques’ (LexisNexis Butterworths, 2nd ed, 2012) 176.