After far too long of an absence (mea culpa), I’m back with the first of a series of posts I’m calling: How to Work With Your Lawyer
Today’s Post: How To Work With Your Lawyer: Trust
Creative professionals are often very smart people. Whether formally educated or not, your brains tend to fire pretty well. This is generally a good thing and can definitely make for better art, no matter what your medium. However, it can become a negative when you think you know more than you really do, especially about a very technically precise field like the law.
When I was in law school, I wrote a post about how, before law school, I thought I knew copyright law pretty well and how I learned that while I knew more than the average person, what I knew was actually very, very little. There is so much more to copyright law (and law in general) than I ever could have imagined without having gone through all of law school. The interplay between the statutory scheme and constitutional issues and how the courts interpret all of it, you just can’t possibly grasp it unless you, like I did, immerse yourself for three years in intensive, undistracted study. Even then, you aren’t fully informed and won’t be until you’re actually in the trenches, so to speak. Plus, I spend a ridiculous amount of time reading cases and highly technical academic articles to learn more, every day.
But I was one of you before law school–one of those who even debated my now-colleague Carolyn Wright on legal questions that appeared in places like the APA Forums. I look back on those debates with more than a little embarrassment. I thought I knew the law well enough to challenge her opinions when, really, I knew just enough to probably frustrate the hell out of her when she was trying to help by teaching the community the (actual) best practices*.
Now, I know what it feels like to be challenged by people who think they know more than they do. I have the headdesk-induced scars to prove it.
I’ve been practicing law for four years now and the most frustrating thing that happens isn’t when the opposition pulls some chicanery or the like. Nope, the worst is when a client or potential client comes to me with a question which I answer based on my expertise in the law (and often additional research to make sure my info on that particular issue is current), and then s/he doesn’t like the answer and tells me, “Well, I feel that you’re wrong.”
First, you don’t feel that I’m wrong, you think I am (language matters!); and second, if you aren’t going to trust my opinion, then you shouldn’t ask for it. That’s not me being petty, that’s me knowing that I can’t do the best for you unless you trust me when it comes to legal issues. My job is to fight for you and to have your back but I can’t do any of that if you don’t trust that what I am telling you is the best, most accurate answer and advice based in the law that I can give you. I’m happy to talk to you and explain what I can, but in the end, you just have to trust me. Besides there being rules of ethics that say we have to do what is best for you, lawyers actively want to do what is best for our clients.
Look, none of us lawyers likes having to tell a (potential) client bad news. We know it’s unfair that a screwed up copyright registration can scuttle an otherwise beautiful case and that the Copyright Office makes it damn easy to screw up (especially the published/unpublished thing). It sucks that if we can’t document the value of the license is $30K we can’t get $30K for you; that while any normal human can see your work has been knocked off stylistically, proving it’s actually infringing would cost god’s own wallet to litigate and we could still lose so we can’t take the case on a contingency fee basis; or, that you can’t not do X now (without repercussions) because you agreed in your contract to do X.
We want to be able to help, that’s why we do what we do (especially in our firm but, honestly, I think all good lawyers still hold that as their first principle). We look for ways to say yes to whatever it is that you want, to enable you to achieve your goal, to fix the wrongs, promote the good, and to defend your rights, but sometimes we have to say no or not like that you can’t or well, you can try it but here’s what you’re risking, or it just isn’t worth that much, or even, it sucks, but just write the check and move on.
I (and others) describe law school like military bootcamp for the brain: a law student is stripped of her old way of thinking and taught a new way in her first year, then trained to use that new way to an impressive level of competence in the next two years. Then, we go out and apply it all in the real world, honing as we go. Maybe the Vulcan Science Academy is a better analogy, because we learn to process data with dispassionate logic. But the best of us also reintroduce humanity to the practice and become weird hybrids of logic and compassion.
The result of this training is that lawyers think strategically as well as tactically about each of your issues and formulate a plan to achieve the objectives. There is balance and judgment involved. It’s tough work that requires more time and energy than you know, just as your work is much more complicated and subtle than any outsider ever understands. You know how to do what you do. So do we.
So, to have an effective relationship with your lawyer, you don’t have to like what we have to tell you, but you do have to trust us when we give you that advice. It’s the only way we can help you.
*To be sure, I really appreciate not only Carolyn’s patience then, but her recognition that I had a good brain that, once trained in the law, would be a good asset to the legal part of the photo world.