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Attorney and Counselor at Law, and Ambiguity

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My business card says “Attorney & Counselor at Law,” and that sometimes confuses people. They ask, “Isn’t that redundant?” My response is “No, because you want me to be a counselor so that you don’t need me as an attorney.” As a counselor I’m a coach—an expert trusted advisor directing from the sidelines. As an attorney, I’m in the game calling plays on the field.

It’s the ability to get in the game as an agent that sets attorneys apart from coaches. Notice I didn’t say our attorney licenses make us better than other coaches or consultants. Your license to practice law just gives you another way to serve. It seems there is a coach for everything these days—life, business, spiritual, writing, marketing, and other niche coaches send us email every day. And, it seems like many are charging more for coaching services than many of us do for legal services. The prices coaches can charge for services indicates clients value their counsel at least as much as our legal deliverables. As lawyers, we should be paying attention to how coaches are marketing and learn something to help us market our law firms and provide services of value in addition to our “normal” legal services.

I’ve been thinking about the distinction between attorney and counselor a lot lately. Sometimes the attorney work gets boring and I would like to focus on just giving the advice. Sometimes I want to just be a coach. Sometimes it seems like crossing that attorney moniker off my card might make life more fun, but then I ask myself a few questions.

  • Which is the greater service?
  • Which is more valuable to others?
  • Which is more transformational to me?

It depends.

When It’s More Valuable to Be a “Counselor”

It is more valuable to be a counselor when the work is developmental and something that will help the client grow as a person or professional. In these instances, doing the work for the client may be a disservice to the client, robbing them of a chance to learn, grow and avoid problems in the future. In this way, I am a coach, and I might be making a more lasting impact on the lives of the clients I’m trying to serve.

For example, I try to coach many clients to file their own copyright applications because the filing fee is only $35 to $55, so the price of a mistake is relatively small. When they know how to do this simple task, they are empowered to handle this important function as a part of their creative business operations. In this sense, I’m working in the spirit of “give someone a fish, and they eat for a day but teach them to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.” That feels good.

Another example of teaching someone to fish is in negotiation, both in the formation of relationships and in the face of conflict. Coaching our clients through these situations usually yields better results than stepping in as an attorney and doing the negotiations as the agent (with numerous exceptions of course). Many times, negotiations are often the transition point between being a coach on the sidelines and a player on the field.

When It’s More Valuable to Be The “Attorney”

It’s more valuable to be the attorney when the project or issue doesn’t come up often for the client. For example, my clients do not launch new brands every day, so it’s more efficient for them to hire me to file trademark applications than it is for me to teach them how to do it themselves. My clients don’t form companies every day, so it’s more efficient for me to do this work for them than to teach them how to do it. I don’t do a lot of litigation, but I can imagine most people do not become involved in litigation every day, so it’s more efficient for them to hire an attorney than it is to learn how to represent themselves. In situations that are unusual for the client, it’s more valuable and of higher service to put on the attorney hat.

My default is to be a counselor and only move into attorney role when needed—with conscious choice. That feels like the best approach in my practice area. Perhaps your practice is the opposite, and your default should be attorney, but jumping too quickly into that role might cost you opportunities to be of larger service—of teaching someone to fish.

Originally published 2011-06-14. Republished 2017-06-16.

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