By Rachel Bussett
When I started my column for this week, I began to write about the government shutdown. I got about two paragraphs into the column when life happened – kids, work, clients, my spouse, &/or the three crazy dogs all needed something.
As a result, I was unable to complete the research that I needed to do to teach you about what happens when the federal government shuts down.
Now when the clock shows a time after midnight with an early morning deadline approaching, I found myself pondering what to write about this week that didn’t need a lot of research. This made me begin to think about the purpose of the column every week for you as my reader. Soon enough my brain started running down the rabbit hole of life purpose and goals.
First, when the paper and I discussed starting OK Law Lady, the purpose was to teach our readers about the law and to make it relevant to your daily life. I hope that we have accomplished that over the last two years and that it has been a valuable resource for you on the law and how our court system works. Every column is a labor of love for me as I try to make the system accessible to you as a reader.
Secondly, I’ve been blessed with fantastic editors who have let me tackle sensitive and controversial subjects.
Third, I realize that sometimes this turns into more of an editorial column on my feelings of what the law should be rather than a teaching endeavor of what the law actually is. Even though I love our American system of justice, like you I am often frustrated by the system and how slowly it turns or the lack of progress when I believe it should happen. Even if I go off on a rant about the law and what it isn’t or what it should be in my opinion, I hope for you as a reader the column has always been a learning exercise in some form whether you’re learning about the law or just me as a lawyer and a person.
So following my woman’s interrelated thoughts down the rabbit hole of purpose tonight, I came back to that research I needed to do about the government shut down. Why do I need to research? I’m a lawyer so I should know everything about the law, right?
Unfortunately that is not the case. I do not know everything nor should I know everything and a truly good lawyer knows they don’t know everything.
Research is crucially important in the practice of law, because the law is constantly changing. Even if I only practiced one area of law, I have to keep up on new cases and statutes that might change the interpretation and application of old law. Lawyers must constantly educate ourselves so that we can advise you, represent you and when necessary educate the court as to applicable law changes with the kind of case and the facts we are dealing with In any given situation.
I am not an expert in the fiscal operations of the federal government. This is not something I deal with in my practice on a routine basis and it’s not something that is second nature from knowing the law in general. Therefore, if I wanted to help you understand federal budget appropriations, continuing revenue resolutions or the Antideficiency Act, I have to first do the research necessary to educate myself before I can explain to you as the reader why the government is shut down, what an essential employee is, why some agencies are still operating and what will happen if we don’t reach an agreement soon.
Since I didn’t have time to do all that research I decided to write about the importance of research in general to the practice of law.
All too often I’ve heard stories of attorneys who allegedly claim that they don’t have to do research because “they know what they need to know” or because they have been doing x for so long that they don’t need to look anything up. This simply isn’t so because even in the most basic areas of law, things change because the legislature changes a statute, the court issues a new ruling, or simply because society’s views changed and a new idea became law.
Oklahoma has been experiencing the latter over the last seven months with the passage of State Question 788.
I think humility is one of the best qualities in an attorney. Humility can be defined in a lot of ways but for me in this instance it’s an individual who isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer but I will find it for you” or “My research says that the answer is Y but Y may not be appropriate for you so we have to determine whether the research supports another outcome for you.”
The best attorneys do not know it all, or even profess to. Instead they know their shortcomings and the need for solid research so that they can grow in their craft.
Today in my circle of life, we had a case that involved the new laws here in Canadian County. Charges were filed against my client on matters that I didn’t believe were supported under the new law. I emailed the prosecutor advising her that I had been retained and that I wished to discuss a significantly lower bond than what was on the bond schedule for the charged crimes. I respectfully laid out why I believed my client was overcharged for the alleged crimes and why he was entitled to the treatment I was asking for.
At that point the prosecutor had a choice to believe what I said and agree with me, totally disregard what I said and tell me to pound sand or reach a resolution somewhere in the middle.
By taking the few extra minutes necessary to do the research and give the prosecutor the exact cite that supported my position I built credibility with her about my knowledge on the law in comparison with her. Additionally, I built credibility by pointing out that I understood that we were all dealing with a new law and that we were all unsure about how certain things were supposed to apply.
I didn’t take an “I’m right and you’re wrong so buzz off stand” on the charges. As a result I didn’t look like an unreasonable and demanding attorney expecting the world to be served up on a silver platter to my client who arguably committed criminal acts.
Instead, my research showed that I was educated and articulate on the subject, knew the shortcomings on the case both in my clients favor and against him and that I knew about the legal flux which could make my argument moot.
This simple approach allowed me to instantly develop a relationship of trust with the prosecutor that will benefit not only my current client but many clients to come. I also offered to take my time to do something I had no obligation to do, which was to talk with the prosecutor and that agency about the expertise I have on the subject to assist them on developing new ordinances that comply with the state law.
You might wonder why I would I want to help draft ordinances that I might have to defend people on later? The answer is simple. I’d much rather defend you on a claim where I know the law, the penalties, and the obligations are clearly defined so I can give you the proper advice than to have to tell a client “I have no idea what will happen. No one really knows what this means,” or “try not to looked shocked and I will fix it later.”
Instead we all know what the rules are, what the penalty will be and how the prosecution will move forward. Then the only choice needed is whether the client will follow the law moving forward.
Reaching an understanding with the prosecuting attorney about what does and doesn’t constitute a crime also helps advise all clients so they can consciously choose whether they will violate the law going forward.
Setting goals and expectations for the lawyer and the client early on helps you define representation and client expectations of performance. And last but not least, a knowledgeable attorney who routinely takes the time to be informed is going to be given the greater benefit of the doubt doing forward on any other close call simply because a relationship of professional trust and courtesy have developed between the parties over time. This will help all clients in resolving their cases.
Hands down for me, I’d rather have the attorney who says they need to do research to verify the answer for the out of the ordinary legal situation first than the attorney who spouts off the answer.
The former is more likely to always double check their sources to ensure they are right while the latter is likely to simply rely on experience without ever ensuring that the law hasn’t changed.
Rachel Bussett is an Oklahoma City attorney. She can be reached at 405-605-8073 or Rachel@BussettLegal.com