“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” – Saint Francis de Sales
In the law, and especially in litigation, it can seem like being gentle has no place. The adversarial system is set up like a zero-sum game, and it can feel like softness is in direct contrast with winning in the courtroom. However, in a profession where we lawyers are painted as aggressive and combative, perhaps gentleness is a silent strength, particularly in our relationships with our clients.
I’m in the COVID-19 Housing Relief Clinic this semester, and we spent this first week in trainings. During these training sessions, we conducted role-play situations, both interviewing and counseling “clients.” In our training, the “clients” were just our supervising professors and the situations were merely hypothetical. Yet, these simulations reflected the very types of cases and clients that, as student attorneys at the BC Legal Services Lab, we might see this semester. For example, some of these scenarios included a wife trying to keep custody of her son in a divorce case with her potentially abusive husband or a landlord using unjust practices to force evictions.
At first, I wondered how useful this training would be. After all, how much is there to learn about just talking to clients? Turns out the answer, is a lot.
Over the past week, after both participating in the role-plays myself and observing my peers, I’ve been reflecting on the kind of lawyer I want to be. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the interpersonal skills that I want to develop throughout the course of the semester. In my mind, the one trait that stands out is gentleness. I realized through our simulations that clients may come into the conversation nervous or on edge about speaking with us. I watched as a simple, how have things been? and a warm smile from my peers, playing the lawyer role, created an empathetic tone from the start. I saw our professors, performing the role of the clients, become more comfortable right away. I also observed our clients lean in as we slowed down and adopted a softer tone when explaining the details of trial to them; conversely, I noticed the clients furrow their brows and become visibly disoriented when we accidentally adopted a more businesslike tone. Of course, part of being a lawyer is learning how to be straightforward during difficult conversations. However, I saw that there was always a way to be kind and empathetic, as well. If gentleness on behalf of the lawyer could have such a palpable impact in only these hypothetical scenarios, then I’m certain it can have a profound impact in real-life lawyering environments, as well.
The legal education curriculum gives us a solid foundation in legal doctrine, which is of course necessary for our careers. However, just one week of clinic training has already taught me invaluable lessons about the soft skills that a lawyer must possess, as well. When I really think about it, it’s relatively easy to read a textbook and memorize the four levels of Model Penal Code mens rea, but there isn’t really a manual that teaches you how to have a softer tone when speaking, or how to suddenly become a gentle person. We call these types of things “soft” skills, but I’m learning that these elements of emotional intelligence are often most important in creating first and lasting impressions as a lawyer.
So, what kind of lawyer do I want to be? My faith leader often reminds us, “it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” I think most lawyers already know they’re important, given our distinct position in society to serve individuals and to further the public good. I want to focus on the ‘being nice’ part. I want my clients to see me as someone who cares, who will both listen and speak with empathy. As a future lawyer, I’m sure I will inevitably find myself in a position where I will need to ask my clients questions they don’t want to answer. At some point, I will have to convey to my clients messages that they don’t want to hear. Although in these situations I may not have a choice in what I say, I can – and should – control how I say it. As I’m sure we’ve all experienced in our lives, a little bit of kindness goes a very long way. Being gentle may not be a trait most people envision when they think of a lawyer, but it is an integral component of the type of lawyer I’m teaching myself to be.
Roma Gujarathi is a second-year student at BC Law. Contact her at email@example.com.