Lawyers should be able to get continuing legal education credit for watching daytime court shows like Judge Judy and The People’s Court. Seriously.
Daytime court shows are a window into the brains of regular people as they try to deal with their legal problems. If you watch closely, they contain important lessons about your clients that can make you a more effective advocate.
You can also learn a lot from watching conciliation court, but conciliation court judges and referees don’t let the drama play out. They cut off the wandering stories and just pry the material facts out of the parties. On court shows, the drama is the whole point, so the “judge” doesn’t cut off the “litigants” to keep the calendar moving. As a result, you get to see what the parties are thinking. You get a glimpse of their strategy, their ulterior motives, and their idea of justice.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned from Judge Judy and her colleagues on the court TV bench.
1. Everyone Thinks They Can Be a Lawyer
The subtleties of legal argument are mostly lost on non-lawyers, who frequently think they would do a better job than a lawyer. Watch the after-the-verdict interview, and you’ll find that the losing party almost always thinks Judge Judy was just too dense to understand his or her clever theory of the case.
This often plays out when you meet with a potential client, too. Potential clients often walk into a lawyer’s office full of suspicion, if not outright mistrust. If you can’t get them to trust you and stop second-guessing you, it will be tough going throughout the representation. This generally takes longer than one meeting, obviously, but mutual trust is the key to a successful attorney-client relationship.
2. Many People Just Want to Be Right
Time and again, Judge Judy’s litigants get off the point to argue about who was right about minor, immaterial details. Non-lawyers often treat litigation like a game where points are awarded for being right about anything that seems important at the time. They waste time and often harm their case by constantly wandering off the subject.
In order to help your clients testify more effectively, you have to help them understand what is relevant to their claims — or at least to trust you when you tell them. Yes, sometimes you may want to tell more of the story, but that should be a strategic decision, not something your client insists on doing in a futile effort to “win points.”
3. The Legal Dispute is Rarely the Real Issue
If the legal dispute were the real issue, the parties probably would not want tell so many irrelevant facts in the first place. The reason they want to talk about all those side details is that they tell the story of what really matters. Many lawyers do not take this into account, and focus only on the money owed (or not owed). But if you can find a way to resolve the real dispute, the legal dispute may resolve itself.
(It is also a good idea to figure this out early on, because the money may not matter so much to your client once the other issues are resolved, and that could be a problem for you, especially if you are working on contingency.)
4. You May Be Surprised by Your Clients
Every now and then, one of the parties will say something that makes sense — or even that is truly profound. That is why you should pay attention while your clients wander off in tangents in your office. They may not understand what is relevant, but they always know what they think is important. And sometimes they are right.
Listening to your clients takes time and patience. It’s easy to fall into the habit of skipping ahead to the important stuff. The problem is that as you skip ahead based on your expectation of what is important, you may miss some critical facts you weren’t expecting. That just means the whole story will come out later — probably when it will do the most harm. Make sure you let your clients tell their stories in your office so you aren’t surprised later on.
Next time you are working from home — or sidelined by the flu, spend a few hours watching some court TV shows. While you cannot (yet) get CLE credit for watching Judge Judy, consider it valuable research into the attorney-client relationship.
- 2011-09-08. Originally published.
- 2015-03-18. Revised and republished.