Clients You Will Meet: The Fishmonger’s Wife
Posted on May 2nd, 2012
This is part of my Practice Tips series.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you start practicing is that up until now, you’ve been living in a nice, middle-class bubble (unless you are a transactional or IP attorney, in which case you are probably doing better than that and this post is not for you). I had my wild youth, I lived on military bases, and I did some crazy things, but while I can occasionally shock my husband by saying things like “nut to butt,” I’ve led a sheltered life.*
Then you get clients and your entire world view changes. You learn that people lie, all the time, even to their attorneys. You learn that people do nasty things to one another and think it’s fine. In fact, they want you to be nasty, too. (I’ve never met a client who would pay me enough to stoop to their level, but perhaps I hadn’t practiced long enough.)
And you learn that there are people who can’t say five words without dropping the F-, S-, C-, N-, or A-bombs. Sometimes these people have great cases…that you take on. And these people may or may not be nice people, but generally? They aren’t. Generally you don’t like them. Generally their phone calls are diatribes about how you are not f-ing doing anything for their f-ing case and what kind of s-ty lawyer are you, anyway? Because that f-ing c-t who rear-ended them should have to f-ing pay, you know?
So. You have a foul mouthed client who isn’t particularly nice — and isn’t nice to you particularly. It’s common in the PI arena. How do you handle them?
First: You don’t let them speak to you like that. You say, “This is not an appropriate way to speak to me. Why don’t you call me when you are able to calmly discuss your case?” And hang up. They will either call back and be polite, or they will call back and be rude, in which case you repeat step one until they figure it out. Sometimes, it might be a while.
Second: You pretend they are two, and you are teaching them to speak nicely.
Third: You practice their deposition testimony. A lot. A LOT. My ex-boss was not good about prepping witnesses for depositions (he hated defending depositions and thought ten minutes of prep ought to do it, every case) and so I had to learn the hard lessons on my own, most spectacularly when I had to restrain my client from going over the table and attacking opposing counsel. (Which is not to say that opposing counsel didn’t deserve it.) If you have a client who is prone to react aggressively or rudely, you practice with them until they can answer most questions calmly. Bring in another lawyer to question the hell out of the client, to ask the nastiest, most aggressive, rudest questions, in the most vicious way possible. If the situation is very bleak, you can engage firms that do nothing but work with clients on deportment issues. I have taken clients shopping for an appropriate wardrobe for video depositions — and oh, my. It was truly shopping hell, but had to be done.
Most of my Fishmonger’s Wives were not very bright and had very little impulse control. They don’t understand the nuances of the cases and they really don’t understand why the world isn’t revolving around them. They didn’t understand why anyone should be able to ask about that 10-year-old assault conviction in a civil deposition, or why it mattered that they were abusing drugs at some point in time. You can explain the principles of broad discovery but…your client will never get it.
Sometimes with Fishmonger’s Wives, particularly in depositions, it’s important to make what are probably pointless objections (and let’s face it, almost every objection in a deposition is pointless) so the client thinks you’re standing up for her.
Fishmonger’s Wives do not understand professional courtesy and do not want you to behave with any kind of civility to opposing counsel, whether or not you’re taking a break in proceedings. They don’t understand that you have to work with these people on a regular basis. Some lawyers make a point of being rude to opposing counsel (especially the young ones, who become overly emotionally invested in their client’s causes of action).
Don’t do that. I would always tell my client: “You will see me being polite to the other lawyer. My job is to get the best result for you, and the chances of that happening are much greater if I have a good working relationship with opposing counsel.” I also explain that if the client personally (verbally) attacks the lawyer, the chances of a decent settlement decrease, too.
But you can only do so much. Sometimes the client is the client’s own worst enemy. If you do your job and prepare them and they still screw it up…make the best of it, but document that they’ve acted contrary to your advice. You really can’t save them from themselves. Trying to will make you crazy.
*My husband never used the term “dikes” for diagonal cutters, because he thought it was too similar to a pejorative to use around me. I had no idea they were called that until I was working in the field with a bunch of guys, who found this HILARIOUS.