Friday, January 31, 2014

Downton Abbey Taught Me to Be a Better Lawyer


If you asked me what shows I enjoy watching,  I would probably tell you I only watch ESPN and the news. Truth be told, my wife and I have been smitten with the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. The well written period drama is set in the country estate of the fictional Crawley family during Britain's post-Edwardian era. As a fan of history, I enjoy seeing how the day's events and technological advancements played into the daily lives of people. From Spanish influenza and the sinking of the Titanic to World War and the Teapot scandal, viewers watch as history intervenes in the daily lives of the residents of Downton Abbey.

After watching several seasons, I noticed the show was starting to influence me.  Our New Britain, Connecticut office had a Victorian feel to it.  The waiting room has antique furniture from the era, paintings, sculptures, a phonograph, typewriters and even a mimeograph machine. I started wearing a monocle and announced my wife's arrival any time she entered the room. I began wearing fancy white gloves to the theatre. (Well technically they were gardening gloves and by theatre I meant catching the latest installment of the Hangover at the local Cineplex) I started butling around the house. The show's influence began seeping into my work at the law office.  It wasn't a bad thing.  Despite Matthew Crawley being a horrible barrister and poor estate planner, Downton Abbey did indeed make me a better lawyer.  And as any proper gentleman would do, I now share this information with my readers.

I now present a few tips I picked up from the lords and ladies at Downton Abbey.

(1) Embrace Modern Technology:

As the series progresses, we see how the old ways and traditions of English high society begin conflicting with modern times. The lord of the manor soon learns that he must adopt modern farming techniques in order to save his estate from financial ruin. The kitchen staff begins using modern appliances in order to become more efficient. The change is too much to bare for the Countess Violet who proclaims “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in an H.G. Wells novel.” Even societal norms begin to change with glimmers of woman's suffrage, racial equality and the bending of class lines.  

As with Downton, one should be willing to embrace the offerings of modern technology. When I first started at my firm, most of the computers were being used as paper weights and a convenient place to place post it notes. Until 1995, the firm's founder was renting rotary phones from the phone company.  (You read that right.)  The typewriter remained the weapon of choice for preparing motions, wills and briefs. God forbid you made a typographical error. 

While I am sure your office stands in a much better state, you may want to ask yourself "is there room for improvement?"  Well?  Ask yourself.   In addition to upgrading our computers, our attorneys now carry i Pads to court. The smart phone has become as important a tool as that extra fork they give you in a fancy restaurant.  (I can only assume it's in case you drop your first one). We have also switched over to a cloud based law office management program called Clio. With my trusty smart phone I can scan police reports, take photos of accident scenes, review statutes, check my daily calendar or peruse the court's daily docket, find directions and estimate my arrival to my next appointment and a slew of other helpful tasks. I can even take a credit card payment or watch "12 Angry Men." Our firm's scanners help us sort through hundreds of pages and have helped un-clutter the office. I can locate a file's location through our law practice management software. I can access documents and client information by scanning a QR code printed on each file. In general, by using technology we have become more competitive with firms that boast larger staff sizes. The time saved has given me the opportunity to get more work done and increase our bottom line.

(2) Whilst Maintaining Tradition:

While I do suggest embracing modern technology, it doesn't mean you should completely ignore time honored traditions. On Downton Abbey, the Crawleys do their best to continue in age old traditions while the world around them changes. Old customs can bring order and stability during times of chaos. The family's butler Carson thrives in the old traditions. When asked why he devoted his life to being a butler, he would undoubtedly refer to it as a calling.

Here is where I compare the life of a butler to the life of a lawyer. Like Carson, those who pursue a life in the service of law are subject to a calling. We stand before robe clad judges asking if it may please the court. We appear before the bench in our Sunday best and are expected to follow proper decorum. A well worn suit can project stature and competence. First impressions happen only once. You should always put your best footman forward. 

(3) Consider Updating Your Calling Card.

When someone paid a visit to the Downton estate, they would present the butler with a calling card. The Lord or lady of the house would then have the opportunity to determine whether they wanted to meet with you as you waited in the parlor. A successful visit to such an estate could help propel you higher in society. Why not make your first impression a nice one?

Over the years, I have collected a shoebox full of business cards. (I am always reminded of that scene in American Psycho where a bunch of stockbrokers compare and contrast the quality of their cards.) Most cards are the standard variety and are professional looking. Others come across bland. When I see a nice business card, I generally make my first impression about the attorney handing it to me. Does it have his or her photo on it? Is it homemade with frayed paper clinging to the edges for dear life? Does he have a nickname in quotes? Is their information crossed out or added in pen? Of course, business cards can be expensive. For a small practitioner, raised ink and linen paper is not your main concern when you have to pay for office supplies, utilities and of course, your butler.  Vistaprint offers raised ink business cards and affordable low minimum orders.  Zazzle.com offers a variety of different shapes and styles of business cards created by professional designers.  They are also affordable.  Of course, we also recommend local businesses.  Check out your local printer.  I am sure they can offer their expertise to design something unique and professional for you.      

(4) Network More

In the world of Downton Abbey, rubbing elbows with the right people can mean success. Knowing the head maid or a well placed footman at the estate could land you a job. Being in the good graces of the royal family could mean titles or prestigious commissions in the military. It pays to be pleasant to those around you. You never know when that lowly chauffer could catch the eye of the lady of the house and become a gentleman.

With that in mind, I encourage you to attend events offered by bar and local organizations. These events can be a great place to establish professional relationships that can lead to future referrals. Depending on your practice, it may behoove you to network any chance you get. Instead of using the drive thru, I tend to go inside the bank to chat up the tellers. I rotate where I get my haircut and chat up the barber. I go to confession once a week and time how long people spend in the confession booth. I give my business card to those who take a long time. It is a great resource for potential divorces and criminal clients. (Of course, I jest. I do not actually leave my business cards in confession booths. I wait for these sinners in the parking lot.)

(5) Don't Be a Pompous Ass

Just because you're the under butler to the lord of the manor, doesn't mean you should put on airs. You never know when that lowly chauffer could catch the eye of the lady of the house and become the next Lord Crawley. I am sure you are aware of a few attorneys who are a bit aloof. Perhaps you know attorneys who feels their law school sheepskin entitles them to be rude to those around them. I have seen attorneys bark at clerks, court marshals and other staffers. Not only are you being an ass, it can really hurt you in the end. Court staffers often have the ears of prosecutors and judges. You really don't want to be labeled a pompous ass. Other attorneys are less likely to refer you clients. Your files might be found on the bottom of a pile on a scorned clerk's desk. A court marshal may ask you to remove your belt, shoes and pants as you desperately try to get to court on time.

Finally, try to conduct yourself with a bit of civility and class. That means no 'cussin. As the Countess Violet noted "vulgarity is no substitute for wit."



(Editor's Note:  The Nutmeg Lawyer has moved to thenutmeglawyer.com.  Unfortunately, we have discovered that Wix.com does not currently offer RSS feeds.  As such, we will continue posting on this page until the problem is resolved.  Feel free to check out our sister site at www.thenutmeglawyer.com  )

20 comments:

Issac said...

Wonderful! I liked the post.

bryan flake said...

I do honestly have to say that tv shows are the main thing that has piqued my interest in the legal system. Downton, Law & Order, CSI, NCIS. It typically doesn't matter, I love them all.

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celine sanderson said...

We can all learn from these ideas on how to be a better lawyer! What would you say are the five most important qualities of a good lawyer? I'm scheduling an appointment with a lawyer to see what my options are on my case.
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Alena Mauer said...

It is good to see that some shows these days are still helping people learn and grow. Not all the shows today are just horrible drama shows. Thanks for the post!

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Lily Vincent said...

I love that you used a TV show to explain aspects of law. Would you say that modern TV shows portray accurate representations of lawyers?

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Sophia Henry said...

I like your spirit to learn by a TV serial to become a lawyer. Many of the people had unable to get the positive things from the TV serials or movies.
Good Post!

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