Tuesday, March 17, 2009


We missed it when it was in the local cinema, so my wife and I rented Brideshead Revisited last week. The critics hadn't been kind, but we enjoyed the film. It is the sort of thing we like and, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "people who like this sort of thing will find this thing the sort of thing they like."

You may be wondering what Brideshead Revisited has to do with our LP course, so I shall tell you. The law review article I was just reading brought to mind a scene from the film.* The scene illustrates neatly a point that came up in our work on negotiating and is coming up again in our work on interviewing. As the title of this post suggests, the point is reciprocity.

The scene involves the central character, Charles Ryder, his friend, Sebastian, Julia (Sebastian's sister) and Lord Marchmain, who is Sebastian and Julia's father. The image above shows (L-R) Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, and Julia. They are chatting amicably, albeit in Evelyn Waugh's stilted aristocratic manner. Lord Marchmain asks about Charles's mother, and Charles replies that she is dead.

How does Lord Marchmain respond to this disclosure? He looks at the ceiling and says nothing.

It is a painful scene. There is no customary expression of condolence or sympathy; simply silence and an aversion of the eyes. Nothing in Lord Marchmain's demeanor reflects Charles's emotions or the significance of the information he has just shared.

What is lacking is reciprocity. Charles has shared something important, and Lord Marchmain has not. In fact, Lord Marchmain has not offered so much as a kind word. In the language of the kindergarten, it's just not fair.

What made me think of the scene was an exercise that Laurie Shanks describes in the article I mentioned. During the first class of the semester, Professor Shanks asks her students to break up into pairs, and each tell the other about an experience that changed her or his life. Later Professor Shanks asks one student from a pair to tell the rest of the class the story of the other student's life-changing experience.

The exercise has several distinct purposes, one of which is to bring the students to the realization that "what we do as lawyers, inside a courtroom and out, is function as the 'teller' of our client's story." Of course, telling someone your story has the potential to threaten your sense of "face," as we have been reading about in Linda Smith's article, Client-Lawyer Talk (posted on TWEN).

Allowing clients to maintain face is essential to building trust and learning their stories, and Professor Shanks drives this important point home with a question. She asks her students how they would have felt if she had concluded the exercise "with only one partner in the pair having told his or her story." The students respond with indignation, telling her, among other things, "that wouldn't be fair." Then she asks, "How do you think our clients feel when they share with us and we do not reciprocate?"

What follows is a lightbulb moment, apparently, when the students both learn something valuable and realize that they are learning it.

If, as Linda Smith claims, the client-lawyer interview is a conversation, a cooperative endeavor that both parties control, and if, as Laurie Shanks claims, "gaining trust is critical to effective client representation," there has to be some reciprocity when we converse with our clients.

How much reciprocity is appropriate? On the one hand, we know that we cannot built trust if we behave like Lord Marchmain, staring vacantly into space when the client takes a risk and discloses something that is difficult to talk about. On the other hand, there is a danger of straying from empathy into amateur psychology, and of crashing through the professional boundaries that allow attorneys to lead full, meaningful lives away from the office. So how do we strike the right balance?

This subject, reciprocity, is one of the difficult questions we need to wrangle with in class as we move forward into interviewing and counseling. In the meantime, I welcome your comments.

* Laurie Shanks, Whose Story Is It Anyway? Guiding Students to Client-Centered Interviewing Through Storytelling, 14 Clinical L. Rev. 509 (2008).


  1. I think we find the right balance by being natural and honest conversationalists. Putting on a "face" can only get you so far as most people eventually see through it. In the long run natural, honest reciprocity/empathy is best--but for those that don't find themselves naturally empathetic perhaps it's something that can be added to a repertoire. Shouldn't the right amount of reciprocity be a function of our own individual styles and personalities?

  2. Maybe Lord Marchmain is naturally inclined to respond to embarrassing situations in a certain way as a result of his beliefs, life experiences, worldview or perception of social norms. Maybe he is just not naturally empathetic. Maybe he sees his silence as the perfect form of reciprocity in the situation. I wonder what kind of response Charles would have preferred?
    As we read and discussed more recently, active listening (especially in silent situations) can be, for some, the equivalent of a natural righty trying to dribble a ball with the left. It can be uncomfortable. Though it might seem unnatural to dribble left, some of the best basketball players have trained themselves to be ambidextrous. Though they have learned to dribble with the left, a righty will probably still naturally write with the right. I guess it depends on how they choose to train themselves/ what they feel the game requires of them.
    In that same light, emotional intelligence is a skill tested and developed over time; sometimes within our own control, sometimes not. The study of a being a legal professional is primarily studying and knowing the law, but I think that the course of study also includes a study of self. Should the study shape us as individuals? Or conversely, should we shape what we study to fit our own personal frameworks? Should Lord Marchmain play a guessing game and shape his reciprocal response to mirror Charles’ emotion, or should he just do what he has always known to be right? Either way, a perfect response is not guaranteed. Our readings seem to reflect the notion that the right response in any situation requires precision. The best responses would also include some level of honesty. The system of manipulation (dishonest in tone – not about the person, per se, but about the circumstances) as discussed in Watkins’ Building Momentum or the frames for understanding the person across the table provided in Smith’s or Krieger’s article both sound like methods for manufacturing/cultivating sincerity.

  3. I'm impressed by the way you can see connections through such different media and draw related issues together. It's inspiring.

  4. I think the biggest thing we see here is that your client at least wants you to acknowledge their hardship.

    While some of us are unable to show sympathy (and might even struggle with empathy!) sometimes we need to put on that "face" if for just a moment, to make the client feel at ease, make them feel that we really do care about them as a person and not as a paycheck. Obviously we do care, but some of us struggle to make that known. Sometimes a simple head nod will do it, other times they want a full acknowledgment (usually verbal) to show that you truly understand what they are telling you.

    I do agree with the reading about the fox and hedgehog, saying that we must learn how to communicate these things to our client, as this window to build rapport is a very small one and must be taken advantage of when the time comes.