The secret to dealing with clients
Posted on May 17th, 2012
I know I’ve been hard on clients in past posts. And yes, many clients are difficult. It’s the nature of practice (or of any job that requires extended contact with the public).
But there is one thing that, if you can hold it in your head most of the time, will help you deal with even your worst clients.
It’s your privilege to assist them with their legal matters.
Your privilege, not theirs. You should be honored to accept the fiduciary duty that comes with representation. You. Not them.
In the eyes of most clients, you hold the keys to the courthouse. You practice legal alchemy and can turn pleading lead into judgment gold. (Which is not to say that after the case is over and they have a good result, they won’t start believing that they could have done just as well by themselves — which is why you never want to end a case with them owing you money.)
Most people who hire an attorney feel wronged. If they’re plaintiffs, they’ve been injured in some way. If they’re civil defendants, they feel wronged by virtue of having been named as a defendant, been served (which would be embarrassing, admittedly), and having had to hire an attorney. If they’re criminal defendants, well, they have excuses, and the cop was always rotten and they were trapped and everyone else was doing the same thing and it wasn’t fair they got caught. If we’re talking family law, it’s always the other party’s fault.
Whatever their role in the case, your clients are damaged in some way. And they are looking at you to make it right.
Sure, these are impossible expectations — and it’s your job to talk them back down to earth — but remember, they actually believe you can make it right when they hire you. They won’t understand that you’ve been assigned a judge who is besties with the other side’s counsel, or that even though they’ve been injured, they make for an unsympathetic plaintiff and no jury would award them a dime.
Once you take that client on, you owe it to them to do your best to make it right for them. Being an attorney is just as much of a helping profession as being a minister or a therapist or a doctor. Clients look to you to fix what is broken in their lives. You need to be clear that you can only fix the legal part of what is wrong with their lives (if you cross that boundary, things will go south fast). But that’s your job. Helping them. If you don’t want to do that, find another line of work.*
There was a time when being an attorney was a noble calling. It’s up to you whether you live up to the ideal or not.
*Lest I be accused of hypocrisy, given that I’m not practicing: I dealt with the most broken of broken clients, who could almost never understand boundaries. This hiatus, this exploration into doing other things and staying home with Pea, is largely because of client-fueled exhaustion.