4 Lessons in Lawyering from “Car Talk”

I am sad that Tom Magliozzi of “Car Talk” has died—he was a real bright spot on the radio. He and his brother Ray (“Click” and “Clack”) hosted the show for over 25 years before retiring in 2012. You can still hear reruns on NPR and even podcast the reruns on iTunes. (Not sure if podcasting is still cool, but I certainly use the heck out of it.)


Man, “Car Talk” is great. It is about cars and car problems in some sense, but those are just vehicles (zing!) for talking about the thing that really matters: Life is funny. All of it is funny if you take the time to think about it (and talk about it with those accents). They could make anything funny even though I had no idea what they were talking about. (Although I would like to point out that I changed my oil one time in high school and have also replaced a “serpentine” belt. I’m not sure if they call it that because it was a devilish task, but I wouldn’t doubt it.)

Ever seeking to reflect on things to get better, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Magliozzi. Here’s my lawyer’s takeaway on four things I can learn from Click and Clack:

1. People aren’t stupid; they just do stupid things sometimes.

As I pointed out earlier, I don’t know anything about cars. Most of the people who called in to “Car Talk” to pose an automobile dilemma obviously didn’t know much either. And they often had done something stupid—or a series of stupid things—to get in the situation for which he or she was seeking help.

But the guys never talked down to people. They never assumed a caller couldn’t understand the technical terms or explanations. They gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. They were the experts but they didn’t feel like they had to rub it in.

That is a good word to me, especially as I deal with situations that almost invariably could have been avoided with better decisions. We all do stupid things; it doesn’t mean we’re stupid. Lawyers should expect that clients can understand what’s going on.

2. You can make anything interesting if you frame it around the listener.

Cars aren’t interesting to me, and they never will be. But I love to solve problems, and I love to hear about people’s stories—I think that’s a near-universal human trait. The Magliozzis were able to take something that relatively few people are interested in and make it engaging because they framed the issues around the caller, not their own knowledge. The car problems were interesting because they were part of a larger story about the caller and his or her issue. I may not have a car problem, but I’ve got a story and I’ve got problems to fix. We all do.

I wish I was better at this—framing a legal issue around the client, not me. I’m sure it would result in fewer eyes-glazed-over consultations and follow-up calls to ask questions that I didn’t answer because I was thinking about me, not the listener (or client, as it were). If what I’m saying doesn’t interest the person I’m talking to, that’s my problem, not his or her’s.

3. Get the back story.

Click and Clack never tried to diagnose car trouble without getting to know the person. Does the person live in Vermont or Arizona? Does the person have children? Is she married? Does he live two miles from work or two hours away (or does his two-mile commute take two hours, an entirely different problem)? For the guys, they knew they couldn’t solve the car issue without knowing all the facts and asking the right questions. And they were able to do it in a relatively short amount of time—they made jokes, but they didn’t ask stupid questions. Every question, even if it seemed off-topic, moved them toward an answer.

Yeah—I need more of this.

4. Build a relationship before solving the problem.

(Or, at least do your best to build a relationship while solving the problem.)

The world is full of people peddling their wares. Whether it’s lawyers or auto mechanics or any other service provider, everyone is selling something, even if he or she may not look like the typical salesperson (you know: the pushy door-to-door vacuum salesman). We all have more options than we do money; often, we have multiple good options. Talented people with interesting things to buy are everywhere.

So how do people choose who they hire to help them? Assuming you’ve got a good product, I think it’s tough to overstate the importance of establishing trust. You establish trust through deliberately cultivating a relationship. How did the guys on Car Talk do this? They were smart. They cared. They were people. They asked about the callers’ hometowns and dogs. And so forth . . .

People could have called any auto mechanic and, assuming they have any network at all, received good advice about how to fix the problem. They called the Magliozzis because they wanted a solution AND a relationship.

Legal solutions are everywhere; that reality becomes truer by the day, it seems. (LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, Avvo Advisor, LawFone, etc.). To capture business from these places, lawyers must be willing to provide good, workable solutions (that’s a threshold requirement) while building the kind of trust that only a real person can provide.

Just like the guys on “Car Talk” did.