By Michael A. Hackard
Abraham Lincoln was a great lawyer – and a great storyteller. I feel a particular kinship with him for a host of reasons – among them the fact that my ancestor, a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, was a catalyst of an event that helped to propel Lincoln onto the national scene.
My 2nd great grandfather, James Gifford, a steamboat captain of the Effie Afton, lost control of his boat, careened into a pier supporting the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, and started a process that pitted two of our young nation’s greatest economic interests against each other in litigation.
The Rock Island Railroad Bridge connected the states of Iowa and Illinois. The Effie Afton’s collision with the railroad pier destroyed the steamboat, its cargo and a portion of the bridge burned down. Nearby vessels blew their boat whistles in delight at the partial destruction of the bridge – a structure that symbolized the burgeoning conflict between the nation’s young railroads and the more established steamship transportation companies.
Gifford’s employer, the owner of the Effie Afton, sued the Rock Island Railroad Company for building a bridge hazardous to river navigation. Lincoln defended the railroad in court. His closing argument was so persuasive that the jury deadlocked and the judge dismissed the case. The case went a long way toward establishing the right of railroads to bridge rivers.
My great grandmother was born twelve years later and christened with the name of Effie Afton, her father’s now long-sunk steamboat.
Family histories aside, I love to tell stories. They can spark my imagination and that of others. There are a number of stories that I like to tell to my clients and colleagues. I didn’t really design a storytelling approach – it’s just something that I enjoy doing, and it helps me to convey my thoughts, however colloquial, to my clients. My stories speak to common experience. They are also a way to make a point that is otherwise difficult to convey.
If I were a doctor I’d be an emergency room physician. My clients do not come to me for a regular legal checkup or to report that “all is well.” While many of my clients are friends or inevitably become friends, I am still hired to do a job – usually a job to reduce legal risks, defend against pending legal dangers or to recover compensable losses caused by third parties.
I listen to my clients. I often remind myself of the adage that God gave us two ears and one mouth. We should listen twice as much as we talk. When I listen to my clients I can focus on the facts as they are conveyed and the issues that arise from those facts. If my client is in trouble I’ll often talk about the “wolf.” We all have childhood memories of wolf folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs. I’ll sometimes talk about whether “the wolf is at the door” or just “in the neighborhood.” I like to use the wolf reference a lot – I know that we are facing a big legal problem if after hearing my client’s story it is apparent that the “the wolf is at the kitchen table and looking for dinner.”
Is my client involved in a legal “meltdown?” Is this a case that I like to take or a client that I like to serve? “Firemen like big fires” and I like big challenges – however fatiguing and troubling that they become. While firemen might like big fires they don’t like arson and they don’t like people adding to the fires either through intention or inadvertence. I’ve found that “big fires” require big team efforts – efforts that include the client and other important team members for the tasks at hand.
Meltdowns aside, it often seems to me that new clients are experiencing a “runaway train.” Once retained my first task is to engineer a stop, a slowdown or a safer route. It does take a while to get on the train and to figure out who or what is causing the runaway and then to implement some solution to stop or slow the train.
For clients who need time I often talk in pilot terms. My father was a pilot, I love airplanes and I like flying analogies. Pilots often talk of trading altitude for airspeed. An old aviation saying is “When in doubt, hold your altitude. No one has ever collided with the sky.” My translation to legal problems is that it is often best to slow down, stay in the air, stay alive, and work for some alternative to a hard landing.
One of my favorite sayings in these days of financial crisis – a financial crisis visited throughout the business, real estate and professional communities – is the need to “ride the tiger.” The analogy is apt – clients are often in a situation where so much is threatening that a resolution does not seem at all apparent. When there is no quick or easy solution evident, an essential commitment to ultimate resolution is often endurance. Enduring pain while seeking a solution to problems is like “riding a tiger” – dangerous but survivable. The “tiger ride” often starts without a clue as to the ultimate safe dismount. While neither the client nor I might have an initial dismount plan, we know that a premature dismount results in a tiger’s meal – at the client’s expense – a result that we want to avoid. I often share this story at the beginning of a matter and repeat it throughout a matter’s long or stressful life. The point, a point often reiterated – “You’re still on the tiger. It’s not safe to get off. Persevere. Endure. Somehow, someway your problem will be solved.”
Not all my analogies involve wolves, tigers, firemen, airplanes or trains. Some are born of my own personal faith. “The truth shall set you free.” This is the starting point of any relationship. What is the truth of the matter at hand? Truth can be painful but at least it is by nature “true.” Deception has no place in the attorney-client relationship, no place in understanding, and no place in representation. We do need to know what is true – whether in litigation or in any other type of problem solving. I won’t represent to others as true that which is false. We start with the truth and then apply the law – a law that allows for ingenuity, skill and hopefully wisdom. Still it is the law – law best based on mercy, justice and truth.
Some lawyers might well think that sharing faith has no place in their law practice. I respect their choice, but as to me faith is intrinsic to my practice. I bring some thirty-six years of lawyerly experience to the practice of law but sixty-two years of life. My life – like that of my clients – has been mixed by tragedy and triumph, sadness and joy, confusion and clarity, strife and serenity and pain and mercy. The strength that I have gained from my faith, my family, friends and experiences I readily share. I think that most clients appreciate the openness and honesty – traits that support solidarity – we are fellow travelers on life’s path.
I often quote directly or indirectly Proverbs 29:18 – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” We all can be overwhelmed by problems or circumstances. My job as a lawyer is to help – this includes providing a vision of resolution – a vision of assistance. I regularly pray for the wisdom, energy and discernment to provide this vision.
Storytelling can be a way of seeking help, sharing humor or making a point. Storytelling is best when it addresses the human condition. I like to hear my clients’ stories. These stories enlighten and energize me. Knowing their stories, I can then do my best in helping them – whether they’re threatened by wolves, a hungry tiger or just seeking time and distance from an as yet unresolved problem.
© Copyright Michael A. Hackard, 2012. All rights reserved