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Small talk, peppered with challenges

I was at a networking event last week, carefully attempting to balance my plastic glass of wine while simultaneously eating enough of the hors d’oeuvres off my plastic plate to make it “dinner.” Just as I was stuffing a piece of bruschetta into my mouth, an older gentleman sauntered over and greeted me pleasantly. I returned the greeting and asked him how he was doing.

We got to talking, and he asked what I did… which, frankly, is why I come to these events. Since I work at a full-service law firm, I approach business development and networking events like this one with the mindset that everyone I meet can be a client or refer me to a client — if someone needs an attorney, my firm can handle it.

I told this gentleman that I was an attorney. He immediately made a face as though he just taken a bite out of a lemon.

“Ewwww,” he said as he grabbed a piece of yellow pepper off his plastic plate and took a bite. “You know what Shakespeare said,” he grinned while chewing on the pepper.

“Yes, ” I told him, “I do know, but I and my firm do a lot of important work for our clients.”

I was giving him the benefit of the doubt, although I was pretty sure that was a mistake.

He stopped chewing long enough to reply.

“Yes, but you lawyers ruin everything. I mean, how many people really need an attorney?” he asked, dragging it out so that it was clear what he thought.

“Well, a lot of them,” I said. “We handle matters for clients that are too difficult for them or that they’d rather not take care of themselves.”

“Yes, but you guys bleed people dry while doing it. You know.”

I thought about this for a minute before responding. By this point, I realized this gentleman was not going to be convinced there was any merit to what I did for a living. I also realized that he wasn’t going to refer me any business.

I had a choice here: I could confront what I believed was clearly a flawed argument with some ammunition of my own and push back a little bit with examples of people I helped during my time as an attorney. Or I could extricate myself from our conversation as quickly possible, avoid any potential conflict and perhaps also give him something to think about after I left.

Despite my desire — and it was strong, believe me —  for an all-out argument, I chose option two.

“Well, I don’t know,” I began, “some of the people I represent really need my help and are extremely grateful to me for providing it. They are happy to pay my fees. If you’ll excuse me, I am going to get a refill on my wine.”

I remember when I was admitted to the Maryland Bar — the ceremony in Annapolis, my best suit on, my family in the gallery and all — now-retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. said a few words to all of us who had just been admitted. He spoke only briefly but was memorable.

He first told us that becoming a lawyer was a noble thing to do. He said that we would doubtlessly put up with a lot of jokes and ribbing, some of it good-natured, some of it not. Remember, though, he told us, when someone’s life falls apart in the middle of the night,  that person is going to pick up the phone and call you. And it’s your job to help.

I remember initially scoffing at the notion that people out there would dislike me just because I was a lawyer, and in my experience, it hasn’t happened too often. I knew, though, that Judge Murphy was right about being able to help people. I have experienced that frequently, and, all in all, the privilege of helping people is well worth the occasional unpleasant conversation.


  1. Had you known more about Shakespeare you could have explained the ambiguity in Dick the Butcher’s “kill all the lawyers” remark from Henry VI, part 2. It is a far more complicated statement to interpret than it appears to be when read literally, and might even have been a joke about people who make cheap-shot lawyer jokes. Dick the Butcher was an unsavory character and Shakespeare did not use him to make substantive points of any worth; the scene in which the remark appears is a form of comedic relief; and the remark is made in the context of a discussion about helping Jack Cade, a pretender to the English throne, overthrow the King. Lawyers are one of the obstacles to this venture and, metaphorically, a barrier against anarchy. Had you explained this and more to the “older gentleman” it might have softened his view of lawyers, convinced him that they were not culturally illiterate (at least not all of them), and even pointed out his own cultural limitations. You also would have sidestepped the formidable task of trying to trump Shakespeare with Joseph Murphy.

  2. Neil J. Bixler, Esq.

    Dear Mr. Cannon,

    I believe you are spot on. At the end of the day, our job as lawyers is to help people. We just need to figure out a way to do it in a more compassionate and affordable way for our clients.

    Neil J. Bixler

  3. I predict that within 24 months he will be very grateful for legal services and will pay retail for them.