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Engaging with clients in the place where they are, even if on a roller coaster

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One of my favorite clients and I were debriefing about his case, and talking and joking a lot just as regular people — not as lawyer to client — in a courthouse conference room, after we scheduled the next proceeding in his case. This man who has seen overseas combat before and is fully willing to do so again, exclaimed that he does not know how I handle the constant challenges and bows and arrows of court day in and day out. I told him how I seek powerful calm in the eye of the storm.

Wow, of all people, a combat soldier who has been shot at (and lived to tell about it, with all his limbs intact) marvels that I go to the lion’s den daily. As much as I have my strong reservations about America’s overgrown military that needs to keep its weapons holstered more often, I know the benefits of fighting experience in the courtroom, whether from the taijiquan martial art that I practice or other fighting experience. I also know that I defend all my clients to the hilt, no matter how much I do or do not agree with their work, political views, or choice of music; usually I find points of commonality with them all, early on.

One of the keys to effective combat, whether inside or outside of the courthouse, is being fully engaged and present in the moment and with all clients, all other people, things, and phenomena; and being fearless of death.

All of my clients are seeking to return to or stay in harmony. Otherwise, they would not need my services. Their cases alone challenge their harmony. Some of my clients feel more than mere imbalance from their cases. Some of them have felt plenty of life imbalance long before they ever got arrested. It is not my role to judge my clients, only to defend them to the hilt, and to tell their story to prosecutors and in the courtroom as persuasively as possible. I am not obligated to get sucked into any of my clients’ trauma, but I cannot engage with a client who is on a roller coaster without finding a way to do some following of that client on the roller coaster — without my getting nauseous along the way — until I can slow or stop the roller coaster or wait for or achieve intervals when my client is not on the roller coaster.

It is not always easy to help my client who is on a roller coaster without feeling the effects of the roller coaster. Can you honestly tell me, for instance, that you have never wondered whether you would vomit after seeing and smelling someone vomit next to you?

In visualizing engaging with my clients while they are on a roller coaster, I remember the Quantum Leap 1990’s television series involving a time traveler who gets catapulted from one tumultuous time and place to another while his assistant, who is in the present moment, continues giving his all not only to find a way to get the time traveler back to the present moment, but also to assist the time traveler in helping the many people in dire straits in the different times and places visited by the time traveler. The assistant sees and hears what the time traveler is experiencing, but does not experience queasiness from any roller coaster, because he is not on the roller coaster. Of course, in engaging with my clients, I must relate to them and even crawl under their hide to know and feel what they are going through. Therefore, unlike the time traveler’s assistant, I am going to feel more of what my client is feeling.

At my best, I vibrate highly for my clients, witnesses, legal team and me as we pursue the criminal defense battle. Humor, music, and magic — in discovering, cultivating, and delighting in my own personal magic and in benefiting from my four decades as an amateur magician — help me on that path. So does this passage by Ringu Tulku that helped matters unfold all the better for me in a book I bought several years ago: See "directly without adding any concept or philosophy. Within this clear vision there is not the slightest doubt about anything, so there is no need for clinging or running away… Although we see that others are suffering greatly, we know that their suffering is almost needless. They are not doomed to be in pain, because their suffering just comes from a wrong way of seeing and reacting. If they could see how things truly are, they would not suffer anymore." Ringu Tulku, Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Buddhism at 58 (Snow Lion Publications, 2005).

As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says: "A controlled mind will remain calm and happy no matter what the conditions." How to reach that controlled mind that will remain calm and happy? For me, it starts with finding fulfillment from inside me, and not from the vagaries of the weather, time, and public opinion. To find fulfillment from inside, one must find peace. Meditation and mindfulness are an important part of that, whether the moving meditation of taijiquan or sitting meditation. So is following the path of zero. There is no out there for the mind. Everything unfolds from finding internal fulfillment.

I have heard of healers who experience temporary discomfort when in the process of healing their patients or reducing their discomfort. I have no obligation to take on my clients’ pain in helping them. However, I must engage with them, and not ignore any tumult they feel. I cannot do both without feeling compassion for myself and my clients and without being fully committed to my clients and their causes.

Like a river, everything and everyone changes from moment to moment, right down to our breath and blood cells, which never stay in one place. A client may feel up today, down this evening, in the middle tomorrow morning, and back up in the afternoon. It is a mistake for me to feel offended when a client acts all bent out of shape about his or her case, and even expresses doubts about how I am handling his case. A patient with deadly cancer cannot be expected always to be all jolly-jolly and lovey-dovey with his or her oncologist and nurses, and criminal defense clients cannot be expected always to be the same either, with their lawyers and law office staff.

It is always easier for me to talk and write about — than to handle — the challenge of succeeding in dealing with clients as they experience and express their up and down feelings. Nothing replaces, putting it into practice. One of my clients recently was expressing numerous concerns and doubts about his case and the way I was representing him — such crossroads moments are to be seized as opportunities and not as crises — that I offered him the option of hiring another lawyer, which option he of course knew he already had. I underlined that I remained honored and delighted to keep defending him, but that it was important that he be satisfied with his lawyer. I was not bluffing, and my client knew that I was not bluffing, and knew that I truly care about him and want to help him as best I can. My client had a lot at stake if convicted, and it was for me not to take anything personally in dealing with him, and he meant nothing personally.

My client ended up staying with me as his lawyer and showing and expressing satisfaction with my work for him, and we got a great outcome in his case. If I were putting interest in money ahead of serving him and my other clients, he would have smelled that a mile away, and might have whistled a different tune.

My staff sometimes has marveled over the equanimity that I have displayed in interacting with some of my most challenging clients. It is for me to always keep that equanimity; it can be a true challenge. I see that when I just take off my damn lawyer’s hat to spend time dealing with my clients as human to human in the place where they are right now mentally and emotionally — rather than where I might prefer them to be — without the barriers of our roles as lawyer and client, and with the power of the pause, we can relate to each other better and more comfortably.

Serving, inspiring and persuading for my clients starts as an inside job, with my working on myself first and foremost. When my clients see I have no script with them, as opposed to my goal of obtaining the best possible outcome for them, that I care about them as individuals, that I can relate to them as person to person rather than merely as lawyer to client, and that I neither fear nor armor myself against even their firmest words and actions, then my clients can trust me more, and talk more openly and calmly with me, not fearing that they are walking on eggshells with me, nor throwing saltwater in my eyes to get my attention.