Commissioner’s Column: Parking Lots, Magic Wands, and the Practice of Law

By Jillian H. Caires

One recent snowy evening, I made the questionable decision to brave Costco. Like any snowy parking lot in North Idaho, it was a mess. Cars were parked all catawampus, and parking spots were few. Luck was on my side when I pulled down an aisle just as lights came on a car indicating it was about to reverse. I put on my blinker, pulled aside to make room for their departure and waited patiently. The exiting car pulled forward and immediately a third car came speeding through the slush, ignoring my turn signal, and smirking at me as they swept into the parking space. This was no mistake – it was blatant disregard. Naturally, I was frustrated, and in my head, I started to bemoan the loss of civility in society.

Over the past few years, I, like many of us, have watched from the sidelines as high-profile legal proceedings publicly unfolded with attorneys taking center stage – both locally and nationally. I have watched with disappointment as attorneys blindly execute their clients’ demands while ignoring ethics and the law, disrespecting the legal process, and publicly insulting the judges, lawyers, and parties involved in the matter. As I thought about the parking lot event, I realized that it was analogous to those situations.

Watching some of the legal shenanigans play out in recent years has caused me to spend a lot of time reflecting on our role as attorneys. Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society. I have a sweatshirt that says, “Do the Next Right Thing.” I believe this is a motto we should all live by as attorneys, and it is a concise explanation of the Rules of Professional Conduct. A more long-winded version of that statement can be found in the Preamble to the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct (“IRPC”) which states:

A lawyer’s conduct should conform to the requirements of the law, both in professional service to clients and in the lawyer’s business and personal affairs. … A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials. While it is a lawyer’s duty, when necessary, to challenge the rectitude of official action, it is also a lawyer’s duty to uphold legal process.

We are all public representatives of our profession; many times, we will be the only attorney an individual interacts with in their life. How we act matters. How we talk to and about other people and the legal system matters. We are constantly being watched to see if our conduct validates the stereotypes of lawyers and aligns with all the lawyer jokes out there (e.g., Why won’t snakes bite attorneys? Professional courtesy.). If we don’t respect the law and the courts, why would anyone else? This is even more true when we are involved in high profile matters that have real impacts on our communities, and it means that sometimes we must have conversations with our clients that they don’t want to hear.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but, unfortunately, I received neither a wand nor a rabbit in a hat when I was sworn into the bar (though I am confident after having watched Harry Potter a number of times that I would have excelled at Hogwarts School of Law). Since I can’t do magic, I’ve had to disappoint more than one client by telling them that there was no legal way to accomplish their goals or obtain their desired outcome. Sometimes, we can’t get our clients the outcome they desire; this is where our role as advisor comes into play. Under Rule 2.1 of the Idaho Rules of Professional Conduct, attorneys are obligated to “exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice.” In other words, we must think critically and independently, and sometimes that means we must have hard conversations with our clients. Our duty is not to tell our clients what they want to hear, and sometimes this means telling our clients “no” and “stop.” We are obliged to tell clients when the outcome they desire is impossible. We must counsel our clients when the proposed course of action is illegal, violates a court order, or is immoral or unethical.

The greatest lesson I learned from one of my mentors, Peter J. Smith IV, was how to have hard conversations with clients. I sat by Peter in more than one client meeting as he wisely counseled clients that the outcome they wanted could not be accomplished or that what they wanted to do in the name of their principles would cause them extreme strife and would cost them their time, money, and sometimes their sanity. I learned from watching Peter that a truly skilled attorney more often talks their client out of litigation, not into it. Unfortunately, not every attorney has developed this skill, and some are happier blindly following client demands for their own self-serving purposes – whether it be money, power, or notoriety. When we have hard, honest conversations with our clients, and more importantly when we are forced to stand up to our clients to tell them they cannot take the course of action they propose, we most fully live out our vital role of advisor.

Going back to my Costco story, after I loaded my car full of groceries that evening and proceeded to return my cart to the Costco warehouse, navigating through the slush and ice, a young woman passed by me. She walked a few steps, then turned back and offered to take my cart. In this instant, I was reminded that most people are good. So too, I am reminded daily that most attorneys are good – diligently practicing, skillfully advising, wisely counseling, and doing what they can to preserve society and our legal system. Most attorneys spend every day doing the next right thing.

Jillian H. Caires is an Idaho native and a proud Washington State University Cougar and Gonzaga Bulldog. After clerking for the Honorable Benjamin Simpson, Jillian spent several years in private practice in Coeur d’Alene before joining the in-house legal team of Avista Corporation. In her free time, Jillian enjoys baking, gardening, walking her standard poodle, and spending time with her family.