Opinion: Weighing law, grace and human connection

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The bustle, process and rules of legal system shouldn’t obscure larger goal of helping people.

When I do jail visits in Cobb, Cherokee, and Forsyth Counties, my clients sometimes bring up the Divine. “God knows the truth – only He can judge me,” they say, pointing up. We refer to this phenomenon as ‘jailhouse religion’ – for a person locked up for months awaiting trial, such thoughts are understandable, even if misguided – judges and juries exist for a reason.

Likewise, in the crush of complex civil litigation, with its tidal wave of evidentiary documents, its grinding depositions, its expense and exhaustion, it can feel like the Divine is far away. In the heat of proving a point, we lose sight of larger case objectives, including helping people.

The reality is that some folks have earned a place in jail and that some business deals don’t need lawyers to overcomplicate them. The Divine is not about some other world – it’s about dealing with the world as we find it. So where is it in our stressed-out legal system?

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

For me, it’s in the listening. In a world of violent assaults and sexual abuse, of byzantine contracts and dueling financial experts, of attorneys and staff living at the breaking point, you might not think of Fred Rogers, but I do. I’m again that little guy stretched out on the rug in the late ‘70′s watching Mr. Rogers, and he’s telling me to listen to people who seem different, to be curious about them.

That’s easy to say when the stakes are high, but the Divine appears when we give our full attention to someone else. It’s amazing how, sifting through the facts and the law, simpler themes emerge. A defendant’s family couldn’t be bothered with him, so he turned to the gang life. All a civil plaintiff wanted was some respect from the corporate executives who bought his company. So often, it’s not really about freedom or money, but about inclusion and exclusion. People want to be heard.

Of course, many of the interactions in my practice are absolutely repugnant. Defendants lie and lie – does this person really believe his own story? At first meeting, I don’t even ask whether my client committed the alleged crime. I want to know where he’s coming from – crimes are not just statistics. Listening carefully, I form a stronger connection vital to an effective defense. Don’t confuse that with sympathy – juries don’t much buy pure schmaltz.

Likewise, businesspeople are proud of what they’ve built and accomplished. Their achievements are like children they’ve grown and nurtured, and they want to tell their story. The law is about stories, after all, when you get down to it. The hardest part of representing a huge corporation is the impersonal nature of it – juries have trouble with that angle too.

The enemy of the Divine is the belief that our human story is disconnected, that some of us escape justice merely through being stronger or smarter. Sometimes, listening to a client, I get absolutely lost in the experience. The sharp edges of the law soften; the facts jumble incoherently. It’s a frightening, exhilarating place, and it takes something out of me, because I’m vulnerable too. Hardened criminals’ faces stream with tears, and captains of industry grow quiet in fear. I’ve seen these things, and you can believe the feelings are real. Sometimes, after years in this career, I’m still shaken to the bone. My client, monster or magnate, is as human as I am.

Of course, I’m not a pastor. When the subject of religion arises directly, I typically avoid it – it distracts from cases. The way to help clients is to thoroughly research and read and reread the laws and to go over and over the facts and evidence until we are waking up in the night over a detail. Such is the life of a lawyer – preparation and hard work and harder work.

Sometimes the firm takes precedence over our families and friends - sometimes other lawyers need our listening ear more than our clients. Some lawyers are struggling in unseen ways, behind the wall of excellence and prestige, really hurting. Sometimes that lawyer is me. The Divine also appears when we listen to our colleagues, past the theories, past the negotiations – counsel, you are my colleague. Even judges.

To be sure, some folks, clients, attorneys, anyone in the law, remain disconnected. Hey, we tried. It happens, and we take measures. The Divine is upon the field of battle, too. And I still love Mr. Rogers, even as I take the first swing.

Douglas D. Ford is a commercial litigation and criminal defense attorney in metro Atlanta.