Attorneys are counselors as well as lawyers. What makes for an effective counselor? Shakespeare tells us in "Hamlet" by portraying the interactions between Hamlet (a guy with a lot of troubles) and Horatio (his confidante).
Recall the narrative: King Hamlet of Denmark dies at his brother's hand. The murderer assumes the throne and marries Hamlet's mother. The king's ghost appears to his son, demanding justice. Hamlet and Horatio set out from there, winding up with a hefty body count, but leaving the audience with timeless lessons.
No. 1: Counselors advise; clients decide. The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow. An alarmed Horatio cautions Hamlet "what if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord/or to the dreadful summit of the cliff/that beetles o'er his base into the sea,/and there assume some other horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness?"
Like a modern day lawyer, Horatio covers all the bases, which is a good thing. Hamlet responds by essentially saying, "I'll take my chances" and races off after the ghost. While Horatio defers to Hamlet's decision, Horatio's men follow discreetly behind.
The same dynamic appears near the end of the play, when Hamlet is about to duel. When the prince expresses misgivings, a wise Horatio counsels, "If your mind dislike anything, obey it."
Hamlet rejects this advice, too. But, in doing so, he ultimately achieves his goal, albeit at a high cost. But these are Hamlet's decisions to make, not Horatio's.
No. 2: Take no offense; clients have their reasons. The ghost gives Hamlet the details on his murder "most foul." Hamlet asks Horatio to stay mum on the meeting with the ghost, hoping he takes no offense at the request. Trust me, he implores. I have my reasons. Horatio simply replies, "There's no offense, my lord."
I recall a time when I took offense. Mediation was set. While the associate GC and I drove to the mediator's office, I asked him how much we had authority to offer, and he declined to tell me. What? The answer: His experience was that outside counsel tend to spend all the money, if we know the amount. He hoped I understood. Feathers ruffled, I did not. I do now.
No 3: Wise counselors are humble counselors. Wise counselors seek to learn and understand, admit what they don't know and take nothing for granted. Hamlet knew this, and enlists Horatio's aid in formulating a plan to stage a play, replicating how the former king's murder occurred, to gauge the usurper king's reaction.
But whyperform the play? Because Hamlet understands that he doesn't really know if his father's murder was "most foul." Here's Hamlet: "The spirit that I have seen/may be the devil, and the devil hath power/to assume a pleasing shape/Yea, and perhaps/out of my weakness and my melancholy/as he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me." The lesson: Be unsure. Be modest. Be humble.
No. 4: Wise counselors are not rash. In one of my favorite passages from Shakespeare, Hamlet tells Horatio, "Give me that man/that is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/in my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart/as I do thee."
Mad-dog lawyers impress briefly, disappoint ultimately. Rambo litigators obtain an easy advantage, yet often lose the long-term fight. Clueless counselors drive clients to a fever pitch, forgetting that a moment's pleasure can lead to a lifetime of regret.
No. 5: Maintain perspective.Lawyers' counsel often leads to a good result, but sometimes it does not. Every lawyer will make mistakes, commit errors in judgment and erroneously tell clients to zig when they should have zagged. We will regret it, perhaps even feel guilty.
But, always remember: Life goes on, and then it does not. In the famous graveyard scene, the grave digger is knocking skulls about. Hamlet picks up one and asks Horatio, "Why may not that be the skull of a/lawyer? Where be his quiddities [splitting hairs] now, his quillits/[i.e., razzle-dazzle jargon], his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he/suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the/sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of/ his action of battery?"
It's easy for attorneys to feel that the whole world rests on our shoulders. Keeping perspective empowers us to be honest, liberates us to be candid and releases our authentic selves.
No. 6: The client comes first.At the end of the play, Hamlet is dying. He implores Horatio, "I am dead;/Thou livest;/Report me and my cause aright/to the unsatisfied."
In a very un-Horatio like moment, the confidante puts his needs ahead of Hamlet's, picks up a cup of poison and declares that he will drink it. Hamlet knocks it away, "As thou'rt a man,/Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I'll have't./O good Horatio, what a wounded name,/Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!/If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart/Absent thee from felicity awhile,/And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/To tell my story."
Horatio does just that.
Know where the word "professional" comes from? In ancient Rome, advocates stood in the town square and professed (professus in Latin) that the needs of others came ahead of their own. Even though he is choked with grief, Horatio reaches inside himself to be a professional, to be what he knows he truly is in his "heart of heart." Well played, counselor. Well played.