Ethics and Professionalism – “I was from Venus and my Lawyers were from Mars” A Program for Lawyers and Paralegals The Ethics of Dealing with Attorneys, Paralegals and Clients
Many lawyers believe that clients want a good and competent lawyer to represent them and to do so at a reasonable and fair rate. There is so much emphasis on billing at a good dollar rate, something the firm needs and the client can afford. So if a law firm takes a new client, puts a good lawyer on the case at a good fee, then everything should be fine. Except it might not be.
Clients, I believe, want something more. They want to be taken care of; that everything they have come to see the lawyer or law firm about, will be okay. They want someone to put their arm around them and tell them they personally will be okay.
I have not done any surveys on this and don’t have any polling to suggest that what I am saying is true. I have something better…my own experience as a client in the most desperate situation of my life.
I had two of the most qualified and best lawyers in North Carolina. The fee was not a problem since they didn’t charge me any money. But we spent a year together, dealing with each other in high moments of stress. Sometimes I believed they were taking care of me; other times, I didn’t. In the end, though, it came out all right. I will tell you why.
It was, I am sure, difficult to represent a professional and a former colleague and friend. It was difficult for me taking directions from someone else. In this program, I explore in detail the pressures we were all under and the trust that was necessary, without which, I would not have survived. What makes a good and successful professional relationship?
I learned some valuable lessons that year, and I want to share them with you. They represent, in my opinion, a guidebook for lawyers as to how to handle clients.
- The first meeting between a lawyer and a client is the most important one. It is where you learn to build trust. This is necessary because you are going to spend it as the relationship goes forward. The final outcome may turn out differently from initial expectations.
- It is communication, stupid. If you can’t or won’t do that, then let your paralegal or someone else do it for you. It isn’t just returning phone calls. It is explaining the legal and factual situation every step of the way. In North Carolina, the Bar says the most frequent complaints are due to a lack of communication. That is probably true in many areas. Why not make this one of the most important aspects of client representation?
- Follow through – promises, promises. They are so easily made, believed and then forgotten. And there are always excuses. Follow through is the most critical thing a lawyer can learn how to do. It is almost as important in client relations as a detailed knowledge of substantive law.
- Unconditional support – clients want you to be on their side…unconditionally… and you should be, unless ethics gets in the way.
- Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion or help from other sources…in my case, it was talking to other lawyers and making sure I came under the care of a well-known and very competent psychiatrist. This proved to be one of the best decisions my lawyers made.
- Telling the truth – this is sometimes hard to do because it is often not pleasant. But if both the you and the client are on the same page insofar as what the real facts and future are, then the best decisions can then be made.
- There will be disagreements and arguments between you and the client. This is normal in a stressful situation. Let it play out. Don’t hold back from the client if he or she is not acting properly or cooperating with you. And let the client come back at you. Out of these often argumentative discussions can come real progress and understanding. Everything does not always have to be smooth.
- Clients want your individual attention while they are meeting with you.
- Clients need a sense of calmness and security.
- Clients need confidentiality – it is the only way they will tell you the truth.
- Do not be judgmental.
- Give your clients time to tell you the truth.
- Do not over promise.
- Give your clients hope – this is what they most want from you, and if you cannot give this, you should not be dealing with clients.
- Treat your clients as though their case is the most important one in the world – it is to them.
- Treat your clients equally. One, though it may be a small matter, is just as important as a larger one.
- Passion – I believe this is the single most important ingredient to being a successful and happy lawyer.
- Learn to take care of yourself.
- Accept responsibility, including those that deal with mistakes.
The backdrop for these discussions is of course by own personal experiences as a lawyer. While I have previously spoken about my own personal fall from grace, this is something substantially different. This is as much about my lawyers and how they acted as it is about me. They worked very hard and cared very much. Wade Smith, one of them often said to me and to others, “we need to pray for a miracle”. In the end, we got one, due in no small measure to their advice and counsel. These are the things I want to tell you about. You will not find them in law books.
Essentially, this is a personal story of the Rules of Professional Conduct. It is a personal laboratory of the basic law by which lawyers are to conduct themselves and how that law and the Rules work out and are applied in a very real context. It is an in-depth coverage and analysis of how lawyers and clients should work together so that when lawyers, in complying with the most basic Rules of Professional Conduct, actually reach the very best representation of their clients.