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There are stories all around us. Are you listening for them?

One step ahead. Life as a young attorney seems to be all about getting one step ahead.

One step ahead of opposing counsel. One step ahead of pending deadlines. One step ahead of memos and briefs. It makes perfect sense. As law students, we were nuzzled in books most of the time, trying to get one step ahead of our classmates and that oh-so-memorable law school curve.

As I’ve progressed in my fledgling legal career, I’ve picked up some pearls of wisdom regarding getting one step ahead. Sure, time management is important. As is task delegation and networking.

The best bit of advice I picked up, however, may run contrary to conventional wisdom. It’s something I’ve been implementing in bits and pieces throughout the years, and its value, while immense, doesn’t appear immediately. But something in me tells me it’s worth it.

One of the best ways to get one step ahead is to take some time away from your desk and go listen to some stories.

Opposing counsel have stories to tell.

Now, I’m not suggesting a busy new attorney flip through whatever streaming service currently has Reading Rainbow on it and get lost in nostalgia. Rather, our days as not just attorneys, but as humans, are built on stories. There’s a story behind that crick you were feeling in your neck a few weeks ago. There’s a story behind your barista’s smile this morning. There’s a story behind opposing counsel’s prosecution or defense of a claim. And there’s even a story behind your reading this article right now.

As attorneys we get so used to asking “Why?” that we can sometimes lose sight of THE all-important “Why?” That “Why?” is what makes us who we are and makes us move and operate the way we do. Therein lies that competitive advantage.

I’m not going to invite you to walk across the next courtroom you appear in and ask opposing counsel why they’re being such a pain. Let’s not do that. Nor will I invite you to cozy up to opposing counsel and forget that they routinely make life difficult for you and your clients. But you should consider the fact that there’s a good chance you will see the same attorneys on the other sides of your cases throughout your career. Chat them up at bar association events or outside court before or after hearings. Get to know them a bit and what makes them tick. Humanize them. Not only might you learn a thing or two, but the rapport you develop could help you in the future resolve your clients’ cases more quickly and favorably.

Being an attorney is amazing. It teaches you how to see the world from an entirely different lens. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re more than just argument machines. Let’s remember that others, especially opposing counsel, have more to offer than just objection fodder and an excuse to mutter expletives under our breath when we dislike what they’re doing. Our clients will be better off for it, and we’ll become better advocates.

Our clients have stories to tell.

Never forget that the line between advocate and human is slight. Our relationships with our clients are a prime example.

Imagine: You fire off a 90-second-long objection in the middle of a live hearing.

The judge nods through your colloquy the entire time, casting sideways, scolding glances toward opposing counsel every so often.

You’ve barely reached the height of your fervor when the judge gestures with a hand for you to stop.

Your heart is pounding so loudly, not sure if you’ve done too little or too much, that you can barely hear the words coming out of the judge’s mouth ruling in your favor, sealing the fate of the case in your client’s favor.

Once it’s all said and done, you give your client a call and inform them of the good news. Is that a wrap on their case? Maybe not.

As attorneys, we’re so often shuttling between one task and the next that we forget our clients typically do not live their lives like that, especially clients who are injured blue-collar workers.

Our clients are real people, where oftentimes the demarcation for their bottom line is whether they can postpone their mortgage or rent payment for yet another month. It’s worth communicating with them at their own pace and, whenever possible, moving at their pace.

Their stories are real. So often, these individuals are present at our hearings. When we esquires speak in our elevated pseudo-Latin, they’re left wondering what the heck is going on. These clients come to us with children, spouses, and grandchildren; with traumas; and with fears. The essential gesture in client relations goes hand in hand with how we can get ahead as attorneys: Never forget your client isn’t just a client but a person with a story. Listen to their story.

To that end, this whole attorneying thing can at times seem like an impossible balancing act where you’re walking on a tightrope fifty feet above a crowd waiting for your best shot at nonmechanical flight. This is far from the truth.

The rope you’re walking on might be a bit elevated, but no more than two inches from a padded ground, surrounded by a network of folks whose only desire is to see you succeed. Lean into these people. The war stories that senior attorneys tell you aren’t just them reminiscing about the glory days. They’re tales of wisdom—wisdom that they had to learn the hard way. Take a moment to have a chat with these folks. Our greatest resource as young attorneys isn’t Black’s Law Dictionary or the internet, but the folks who have tread the paths we’re on right now. Let’s remember this.

What’s the moral of this story, you ask? Take a small step back. Listen to the stories around you and grab some context. Your next step will be your biggest.

Paul Loriston is an associate at Pond Lehocky Giordano LLP, the largest workers’ compensation and disability law firm in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the U.S. He can be reached at ploriston@pondlehocky.com.

Reprinted with permission from the December 14, 2023 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.

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