August 24, 2008

Gerry Spence and I were close long before we actually met each other. Gerry had invited me to speak at the Trial Lawyers College, but my trial schedule stood in the way. Since then we have had a chance to talk a lot about trial practice, the trials we have been involved in and, of course, I had the unusual perspective of watching Gerry represent me against the Government.

Gerry and I are a bit of an “Odd Couple”. Gerry is like a trial Zen Warrior who likes to go around the mountain to get to the other side; usually if its in my way I will knock it down – he is a Siren gently calling the defense to ruin on the shoals of Anthemusa, whereas me – well FiegerTime has been compared to a visit by Genghis Khan or a Sunday ride with Gen. Sherman.

While we joke about the apparent differences in personalities whenever we talk, over the years we have recognized that we share much more in common. For example, we share the ability to listen – not just to hear but to listen. Believe me; if you knew Spence you would know the difference. Gerry’s hearing is about as sensitive as a moon rock, but he can listen more astutely than anyone I have ever known. (Sorry Gerry, I couldn’t resist.)

How many times do we “hear” something and make the mistake that it is something we have heard before? It’s because we don’t listen. Scientists tell us that our brains “fill in the blanks” or complete the sentence. It takes a conscious effort to really listen. The more familiar a person is to us the harder it becomes to “listen”. As lawyers, we often talk to a client who has suffered some horrible damage that we have come across in many other cases and there may be a tendency to say “I have heard this story before… I know what happened, now let me do my thing.” That would be a natural tendency and it would also be a mistake. You have to listen to every person carefully because while the damage may be familiar, HOW they experience it is always different and can have a tremendous effect on the case’s outcome.

The willingness and patience to actively listen to every person is not just important for the success of a trial lawyer – it is important for every relationship we have. Think about it. If we actively listen the least to the most familiar, what does that mean to our closest relationships? And these are the people who mean the most to us! We need to listen to everyone in our lives if we want to be successful, whether they are our children or clients. Listen and understand what they are saying to us even if we think we have heard the words before.

The ability to listen is not a genetic trait that comes automatically. It requires practice and most of all, effort. For example, I head what some would describe as the largest and most successful Plaintiff’s law firm in Michigan; we try cases all over the Country. I’m always being asked to speak or give interviews to the media. I am the father of 3 beautiful children ages 7, 5 and 1. In other words, I am super busy. At times it seems like I have 5 people talking to me at once. Because I am so busy I always remind myself that my success as a lawyer, father & as a friend depends upon my willingness to take the time and effort to LISTEN and to be kind.