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Charles H. Houston, a lesser-known luminary in the civil rights movement, may have been the best legal strategist in American history.
Long before the U.S. Supreme Court completed its 180-degree turn-around on equal rights, Houston was planning the demise of Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall won Brown v. Board of Education, but he credited Houston for winning cases decades earlier that led to the end of segregation.
"We wouldn't have been anyplace if Charlie hadn't laid the groundwork for it," Marshall said.
Houston remains a monument to the value of long-term planning in the law, although some say the strategic lawyer is a dying breed. Here are some ideas about the benefits of strategic lawyering today:
According to an article in the ABA Journal, strategic lawyers were more common 50 years ago before the emergence of specialty and multinational mega firms. But legal strategists are more important to clients than ever, said lawyer G. Richard Shell of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Most lawyers would probably think they are strategic because they think about how to maneuver within the legal system," Shell said. "What business people think is how [the law] helps them gain a competitive position."
Strategic lawyering is big picture in business; not just a shapshot in litigation. In the business world, clients want their lawyers to tell them what they can do more than what they can't do.
"The worst thing that a lawyer can do is tell a client no and not have another suggestion for what is acceptable to the business objective," said venture capitalist counsel Jason Mendelson.
In litigation, legal strategy does not begin with filing a complaint and end after completing a trial. It should start when the client first enters the office and extend for the life of the business relationship.
"This extends to how you discuss issues with your client," attorney John Balestriere wrote for Above the Law. "When you raise an issue, with whom you raise it, how you raise it -- in all of these situations, you again need to think of long-term consequences."
Balestriere says long-term planning is a way of thinking. It is a a habit, a skill or technique that can be learned.
"I see great, promising young lawyers who not only don't yet think this way, they don't even appreciate the importance of thinking this way," he said. "That's fine as long as their mentors teach them the need to think like this, and do so every day."
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