President's Page

President's Page--Attorney and Counselor at Law

by Thomas J. Ryan

"The practice of law is more than a mere trade or business, and those who engage in it are the guardians of ideals and traditions to which it is right that they should from time to time dedicate themselves anew."

Hugh Patterson McMillan,Scottish lawyer, Ethics of Advocacy, 1916

It is appropriate at this time of year, when there is a focus on and concern with peace on earth, that the legal profession reflect on an important aspect of what we do to help bring peace to our communities. It is also the time of year to consider our accomplishments and to look forward to the challenges ahead. So, I take this opportunity to focus on the value of our role as counselors.

On the doors, business cards, and letterheads of many of us it says "Attorney and Counselor at Law." This aptly describes the most important part of our work: providing guidance toward solutions that make sense and addressing the needs of those who seek our help.

The common public perception of attorneys is as warriors for whom battle is the only way. It is likely that this view prevails because of the attention paid to courtroom contests that are often publicized, dramatized, and too often, sensationalized. The lawyer as warrior is only one of the panoply of roles attorneys can fulfill in dealing with the very real problems of those who seek assistance. We know that the real grit work of the legal profession takes place in the corridors of the courthouse or more often, the lawyer’s office.

It begins when someone comes to our office to discuss a problem and seek a solution. The best among us are good listeners and gather the information necessary to lead to a solution that fits the circumstances. For many clients, this is a first and important opportunity to be heard by someone who is not only independent, but who cares about their problems and is interested in helping them. It is this listening, caring, and advising aspect of what we do that sets us apart from other professions, as something akin to the "healing profession" of medicine.

This first meeting is a point of significant responsibility for every lawyer. We can and should apply our experience and suggest one of the many dispute resolution alternatives available or fashion a new one. After all, we have important first-hand knowledge about how the litigation system operates, its pitfalls and advantages. Our insight and explanation of the various alternatives is vital in helping those who seek our guidance make an informed decision. Usually, these alternatives are quicker, easier, and less expensive than litigation. Often the best solution is not litigation, not even for those who come to us prepared to sue. Of course, there are even times when the best advice is to walk away if litigation, or even the alternatives, would be futile or just not worthwhile.

It is not an overstatement to say that in this way, as counselor, we use our skill in an effort to heal—not just the immediate problem presented to us, but the person as well. In a very real sense, society benefits as well from this counselor approach. And we should not underestimate the professional fulfillment we derive from our privilege to serve in this capacity.

In my particular practice, I have found that emphasizing my role as counselor builds goodwill, trust, and strong, long-term client relationships. In this very real sense, what is good for those who seek our help, can be good for us and, to be sure, for society. As lawyers, we are part of the integral system of dispute resolution that ideally serves to make human relations and commerce orderly and better. When we act as counselors, we are reaching out to make this system work even better.

As counselor, we can build these long-term relationships in part by using our experiences to educate our clients. It does not matter whether a lawyer is practicing business, family, or criminal law. We can literally teach them ways to avoid unnecessary conflict and minimize liability. For instance, this may take the form of suggesting a detailed, written contract that clarifies the relationship of the parties. Or, it may be discussing a substance abuse problem with a person charged with drunk driving in an attempt to guide them into the psychological treatment they need.

The counselor role does not end when litigation occurs. Now, more than ever, there are alternatives in the context of every lawsuit. We still have the old standby of settlement decisions, where again the lawyer, as counselor, puts to work past experience to provide guidance through the delicate settlement process.

As lawyers, we are also progressing another step through the enactment of MCR 2.401, et seq.—the new alternative dispute resolution court rule. This rule reflects the growing trend of lawyers working as counselors to find solutions besides litigation to disputes that inevitably arise. For the counselor in each of us, it is important to learn and understand the opportunities that are presented by this new approach. This new rule is clear evidence that the counselor role is emerging to the forefront of our practices. Each of us must understand its significance and be prepared to explain it to our clients and guide them through the alternative dispute resolution process. Perhaps, more significant, we should be encouraging the use of this important process.

Whether it is the first-time phone inquiry or a discussion during the afternoon break in a jury trial, it is important that each of us are conscious of our role as counselor. It is a role we should be proud of and emphasize so that perhaps one day the phrase will be "Counselor and Attorney at Law."

Executive Director

Our new executive director, John T. Berry, comes to us from Florida, with a wealth of experience and knowledge of bar matters that will serve our bar association well into the future. Though John’s official start date was November 13, he has been participating in Executive Committee discussions and in various phone contacts with staff to ease his transition into full participation in our bar activities.

John will be visiting our members throughout the state in the coming months. We welcome him wholeheartedly and look forward to drawing on his expertise and experience in assisting our bar association.

Although bar activities are extremely important, we have declared a moratorium on other than essential bar activities from December 11, 2000 to January 5, 2001 to allow our members to spend time with their families, their practices, and to be given the chance to reflect on the prior year and the year ahead. We are all grateful for the many blessings we share in this state and in our profession. We wish you all the blessings and peace of the New Year.

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