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Everything Your Lawyer Wishes You Remembered from Kindergarten

I grew up in New Jersey before computers and cell phones became an integral part of our society. That meant at night, after all the kids were done playing outside for the day, there were really only three options to entertain myself: watch one of the four kids TV stations, play Nintendo or read a book. While I did quite a bit of the first two (and Double Dare is back on TV with Marc Summers for those who, like me, enjoy reliving their childhood) I probably spent just as much time reading various books around the house. 

Finding something to read could be difficult in the 80s; I couldn’t order books from Amazon and the bookstore was far away and expensive - so my selection was limited to what was available at the local library and whatever my parents and brother happened to have lying around. On one of these lazy days I found a wonderful little book in my mom’s room by a man named Robert Fulghum called “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Even at a young age, I remember thinking how amazingly relatable those things that we learn in kindergarten were to my everyday life. As a side note, Fulghum’s next two books, “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It” and “Uh-Oh” are equally  masterful. 

I’m old now with kids of my own. I happen to be lucky enough to work with a group of amazing lawyers in Winston-Salem and support staff and I love what I do. The other day I was thinking about topics for this blog and it struck me that there is just so much that I wish my clients knew...things that would make their lives (and my life) so much easier. I was immediately transported back to the days of my youth - lying on my twin bed with the last of the late day summer sun streaming through the blinds while I read that old dog-eared paperback Fulghum book. Then, I had my idea. So, I humbly present the lawyer's version of Fulghum's classic. 

“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” 
 (and I will remember these things when working with my lawyer.)

1. Share everything (with my lawyer).

This is a biggie. There is nothing worse than trying so hard to help a client through a tough situation just to learn that there is something they didn’t tell you absolutely everything about. As a lawyer, I am trained to not judge you. I can’t help you if you don’t share everything with me about your case – the good, the bad and the awful. Remember, as a general rule, you should never lie to three people: your doctor, your lawyer and your accountant. (Your priest is up to you.) 

2. Play fair.

Good lawyers don’t cheat. We don’t lie. I don’t do things in court to the opposing lawyers to try to trick them or get a leg up. I try to win because we are right, the law is (hopefully) on our side and our cause is noble. The minute you get caught playing unfair, you and your case are in for a world of hurt. Don’t ask me to play dirty, because I’m going to ask you to help us win by playing a fair game better than the other side. 

3. Don't hit people.

It’s called assault and it’s a problem in court. Aside from that, this is a really important one to remember if you are in a contested child custody case:  spanking is not an option for punishment. I don’t care what you and your ex did in the past - once you are in court, it’s hands off! 

4. Put things back where you found them.

Keep your life, and your evidence, organized. As a client, you are paying for my time and the time of my staff. Whether it is medical records, bills, bank statements, text messages or any number of other important documents, court cases require a lot of documentation and evidence. If you prepare these documents ahead of time and bring them to my office in an organized manner, you make it that much easier for me to instantly laser focus on succeeding in your case. It will also make things easier for you when you open my bill, having saved yourself hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars. 

5. Clean up your own mess.

In other words: take personal responsibility for why you are where you are and help me to fix it. While some of my clients are truly in my office through no fault of their own (for example those rear-ended at a traffic light) many of my clients have some role in why they need a lawyer. If it’s a divorce case, very few divorces are 100% one party’s responsibility, and if it’s a custody case typically both parents had a role to play in having and raising the child… you get the idea.

As an experienced family law attorney, I almost always ask the client, “What is the other side going to say about what is your fault in this situation?” As the client, it is important to not get defensive about this question. My job as your lawyer, in the most simplistic terms, is to help you clean up the mess. If we don’t know what the other side is going to say about what caused the mess, it’s much harder to help you to clean it up. Because of this, it’s helpful to spend some time being introspective about your situation. Think, “What could I do, or have done, differently and what can I do in the future to make this situation more successful?”

6. Don't take things that aren't yours.

Just like number 3, if you don’t follow this rule, you’ll likely also be seeing one of MPVT’s excellent criminal lawyers in NC.  Aside from the obvious “don’t steal,” this also applies to things like hacking into your ex’s bank or email accounts. All too often I meet with clients who have gotten information about their ex through means that are extremely problematic to have to explain to a judge in court.

My job as your lawyer is to use the legal tools at my disposal to find the information that you need to win your case; whether it’s a subpoena or the discovery process, let me do it the right way. When you do it the wrong way, you run the real risk of me being unable to use that evidence or, even worse, you run the risk of being sued or charged with a crime. 

7. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.

I understand that being in a lawsuit is an emotional experience. Normally, it is the result of one person hurting another person. Sometimes, those two people had some history together. A little bit of regret and an apology can go a long way in these cases. Now, I’m not suggesting you should apologize to the police officer for being drunk when he pulls you over, but in family law, business law or personal injury cases sometimes an apology can really help. Early in my career I represented a lovely woman who was injured at a restaurant. We went through a lengthy litigation, trial and appeal which ultimately ended up very much in her favor. When I asked her about her feelings at the first meeting and after the trial, she said the same thing to me: “If they had just apologized and handled it differently, I would never have even come to you.” Contrary to what many folks believe, lawyers don’t have any special or “magic” words. However, used the right way, I’ve seen the words “I’m sorry” work wonders.

8. Wash your hands before you eat.

There’s no special metaphor here.... it’s just good hygiene. 

9. Flush.

See above. 

10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

11. Take a nap every afternoon.

12. Live a balanced life - learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Numbers 10-12 really go together. A lawsuit is stressful and does have emotional and psychological effects on even the strongest people. It is important during the process to take some time (with or without cookies) to take care of yourself. If you lose yourself in the process of the lawsuit, it becomes much harder to focus on things that need to be done in order to be successful.

It is also important to not let your case define your life. Too often I see people who become so obsessed with their case that their health and overall well-being begins to suffer. Remember: you pay me to worry about your case and to put you in the best possible position to be successful. Take that pressure off your shoulders and put it on mine.

13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

I would break this into two parts. First, be careful what you put out there for the world to see. With the rise of social media, you can undo 5 months of hard legal work with a 5 second Facebook post or text. Just like we teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the road, you should think twice before hitting the post or send button. The temporary satisfaction you may get from a dig at your ex, or the “likes” for your Facebook post are not worth the damage they will do to your case.

Second, hold hands and stick together. Lean on your family and friends during a lawsuit. Whether it’s for financial support, help with testimony or just to have a friend to talk with to get you through the newest crisis or difficult part of your case, friends and family are necessary parts of the legal process.

14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

While your case is going on, you’ll probably have holidays and birthdays and other important events. Keep the process in perspective and you’ll be a better witness and be able to do the things that I need you to do. Also, trust my lawyerly advice and follow it. Just like your kindergarten teacher who knows what will happen when the seed gets planted in that Styrofoam cup, I know how the process works and what the likely results are. While no one can predict the future, I’ve grown these plants many, many times. Even if you don’t like what I am telling you, listen and remember that my job is to tell you as objectively as possible what I think the likely results are. While the decisions in your case are ultimately yours, I am here to help put you  in the best position to be successful. 

15. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.

I don’t necessarily remember covering this in kindergarten, but the point is well taken. In life, nothing is permanent. Your case won’t last forever either (although it may seem that way) and there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to keep your eyes on the goal and together we’ll get to the other side. 

16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.”

Finally, many lawsuits are tragic and difficult for everyone involved. Many involve loss: the loss of a loved one, loss of a marriage or loss of one’s freedom. These things can cause real grief, depression and  long-standing emotional harm. It can overwhelm you. It is important to keep your eyes open for all the good in the world, even in the hardest of times.

When you remember all these  kindergarten lessons, you and I can focus together on getting to the end of the day (your case) to run out of that school and off the bus (the courthouse) to see your parents waiting for you and get back to what really matters. Which is the reason you came to see me in the first place.

Note: the bold (numbered print) is taken from:
Fulghum, Robert. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. New York: Villard Books, 1988. Print.