Next week a “sound work” called Audio Obscura opens at St. Pancras rail station in London. Armed with headphones, participants enter the crowd. As they pass through the station, they “overhear” fragments of conversations and stories going on around them. It sounds odd, but I suppose that the work encourages participants to use their imaginations. People’s imaginations, of course, travel in different directions.
I am fascinated by the idea behind Audio Obscura. I have always enjoyed meeting and advising people – and often, guessing what they are about to tell me. I like helping them to find ways out of their various problems. During long working days, that vital interaction keeps me going. As for the ability to anticipate clients’ problems: that’s a lawyer’s tool. I once calculated that I have advised close to 10,000 people in my career to date, and experience has taught me to understand, respond, anticipate and advise my clients.
Every case is different, but clients’ problems can be similar. Every person is different, but when confronted with specific situations, people’s reactions can be predictably similar. Sometimes an experienced divorce lawyer can hear meagre scraps of information about a complete stranger, and it is still enough to understand and offer advice.
Yesterday I saw Queen’s Counsel, in conference with a client, at a well-known barristers’ chambers in London. I arrived early, even though he works nearby, to make sure I was there first so that he didn’t have to wait on his own. I sat in the small waiting room, reading a newspaper. In came an elderly man with a cut-glass English accent, obviously a client. He too was there to see Queen’s Counsel. As he sat and waited for his solicitor, he was clearly nervous and agitated. What was he brooding upon?
I imagined what the answer might be. To me, he had all the hallmarks of a man who was used to exercising control in his marriage. My guess, observing him, was that his wife was divorcing him and he couldn’t cope. I suddenly thought: I was (in a way) taking part in the St. Pancras exhibition!
The man paced about, unable to sit down until his solicitor bustled through the door. The pair then seated themselves opposite me. She spoke loudly and with apparent authority, no doubt anxious to impress her client. But why did she choose to provide the answers to my thoughts? She dived straight into the details of his case, at full volume. I had no choice but to “overhear” their conversation, in that small waiting room.
I was no longer exercising my imagination: I had guessed right, but that wasn’t the point. By the time my own client arrived, I knew that man’s name, age, occupation, case history, assets and the nature of the specific family law problem for which they sought advice. (I actually knew the answer as well!) I was horrified though: this conversation was factual, it should have remained strictly private and it should have been conducted elsewhere.
It reminded me of another conversation I overheard once. In keeping with the St. Pancras exhibition, this time I was on a train. A man in the same carriage spent most of the journey speaking loudly and rudely into his mobile phone. We learned that his boss had opened an amazing new business overseas, and that it was already going great guns. He was making flight arrangements for both of them to travel and inspect it the following week. The man was oblivious to everyone around him, and how we were all annoyed with him for disturbing us.
All of us bar one, that is. What he didn’t know was that I was acting for his boss’ wife in their divorce. And the offshore business had not been disclosed…