Vail Daily column: Caring for the client
Lawyers are called a lot of things, some of them printable in a family newspaper. Among other sobriquets, we are known as lawyers, attorneys and the highfalutin barristers and esquires. What we are also called is counselors, which can be construed narrowly or broadly.
Taken narrowly, an attorney-as- counselor may mean that we counsel people in the law. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is our charge and function. But taken more broadly, “counselor” may also mean that, in caring for our clients, we help them through whatever darkness has brought them to our door. We hold their hands, buck them up when they are down, have a Kleenex at the ready, speak the truth to them, and — most importantly — let them know that we care about them.
Oftentimes, clients come to us to put things together; they are buying a business, getting married, wish to have their estate plan tuned up. And while all of these are important and deserve the lawyer’s full attention, they generally do not create the kind of stress that divorce, defense of a lawsuit, contest over a deceased loved-one’s estate, neighbor conflicts, or criminal defense do. To borrow from Thomas Paine, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”
I like to think of things legal as falling into one of two broad categories; those that are putting things together and those that are taking things apart. Usually, the latter is more stressful; the path more difficult to discern.
Perspective colors everything
Recently, I had a new client come to me. She had been through three attorneys. Often, when a client “attorney skips,” he or she is a high-conflict or high-maintenance person or has walked out on the prior lawyers without settling the bill. This can be a red flag. But this isn’t always so. Sometimes — quite often actually — the client simply feels that the lawyer (or a series of lawyers) doesn’t care or cares more about himself than about the client. It should be noted that this may or may not be true. Like any profession, there are lawyers who have had compassion bred out of them. Other times, the lawyer does, in fact care — often deeply — but is either reticent to show it or doesn’t know how or when to let the client know that doing right by the client keeps the lawyer up at night.
There is a fine line, however, between caring — truly caring — and blind alliance with the client. While the lawyer should and must be the client’s advocate, the lawyer’s advocacy must be tempered with discretion, a full understanding of the facts and law, and a keen perception of human nature. While everything the client tells you may be true, a lawyer is wise to understand that, like most things in life, where one stands is usually a function of where one sits. Perspective colors everything. All of us who have been in practice for a while have encountered the lawyer whose clients are always completely and infallibly right. And, in the last analysis, this does not serve the client. A cool and accurate assessment of the client’s situation, annealed with reason and experience, is more valuable than being the most voluble.
‘I’m here for you’
I have long printed my mobile number on my business cards. And just as long, I have invited clients under stress to call in the evenings or on the weekend if a crisis presents itself. To be clear, I am not alone in doing so, lots of lawyers do. And in so doing, what the lawyer is conveying to the client is, “I’m here for you.” Bedside manner matters in law the same as medicine but, in both, it must be sincere.
I often tell young lawyers who ask me what the secret to being a good lawyer is that there are a couple of “secrets.” Return your phone calls promptly. Be accessible. Do what you say you are going to do. Do what you say you are going to do on time. Keep the client informed. Work hard. Listen more than talk. Be straightforward. And then, if you happen to be brilliant, that’s a bonus. What clients care the most about is knowing that you care about their issue and about them, you are hearing what they say, that you treat them with respect, that you shoot straight about their matter with them, and that you are working hard for them.
I spent an hour with the new client and listened more than talked. What I heard was a litany of hurt and disappointment, some of it a function of the legal circumstances with which she had been dealing and some of it about the lawyers who had taken her case and money but didn’t seem to care. When I pointed out that her case was a difficult one, rather than pulling away, she embraced the honesty, saying to me, “It took my last lawyer months to share that with me. Shouldn’t she have told me from the start?”
I said, “I can’t make you promises. It is a difficult case. But I will do my best for you and I will be straightforward with you.”
She smiled and she cried at once. The relief was palpable.
She is a sweet and honest woman who needed to be acknowledged as having tried mightily to do the right thing. And in so doing, had been taken advantage of.
I love the law, the reason and the logic, the intent for justice to be done. But what I love as much, is the ability to help, to ease a client’s burden, to share the client’s load a little and to let the client know I care.
Lawyers are given a bad rap, but only some deserve it. Most are decent people waging battle for their clients. The best, I think, are attorneys and counselors at law. And there’s not the least bit wrong about a lawyer letting his clients know that he sees them as individuals rather than solely as a legal matter.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.