Vail Daily column: Getting a client to ‘yes’
When I was a young lawyer, a favorite mentor of mine once said to me, “Your job as a lawyer is to say ‘yes.’” He went on, “Clients do not want to hear you say ‘no’.”
Rather than “yes” or “no,” I thought the proper response was “Okay?” So that is what I said.
The other lawyer was much older than me and had earned his full head of gray hair. He was a wizard in a courtroom. He gathered up his great, gravelly voice and splayed his huge hands over my desk. He said, “Clients are paying you good money to get what they want. It is your job to get it for them.”
I thought hard about it and removed the question mark from my “Okay.”
When ‘no’ is needed
Then I thought about it some more. And through the years, I thought about it even more. And what I’ve come to realize is that he was right. But only sorta. It is a lawyer’s job also to say “no.”
So a client comes to you, most times wanting something quite specific. He has been riding with the particular burr in his saddle that he’s come to see you about perhaps for a long time and wants a particular thing accomplished. All well and good. You talk it out. You get to know him. You get to know his goals and his motivations. If you’re really good, you figure out what gets him up in the morning and what makes him tick.
The only problem is, sometimes what he wants just isn’t possible. Maybe it is in the movies but in the real world of law, the particular cat he wants to skin just ain’t skinnable.
An example here might help.
My phone rang. I said something apropos like, “Hello.”
The caller asked me if I was who I was and so I said I was. He said, “I need a lawyer.”
“You’ve come to the right place.”
“My wife wants to divorce me.”
“I’ve handled hundreds if not thousands of divorces,” I said.
“I want to destroy her.”
Channeling my inner MC Hammer, I said, “Can’t touch that.”
He said, “I want to leave her penniless.”
I said something like, “Unless the two of you are penniless now…”
He said, “I want to ruin her.”
I said something like, “Well, I can’t help you with that.” Then I paused and said, “You’re understandably upset. Divorce is a hard thing. Maybe we should get together and discuss what you can do and what I can help you with.”
THE ROLE OF A good LAWYER
After he made an appointment, I cradled the phone and thought of my old mentor. I couldn’t exactly tell the caller “yes” but I could help him figure out his way. If what he wanted was vengeance, then I was simply not his guy and, by the way, the law would not allow his wrath. But maybe what he really wanted was simply to be heard.
Give me little leash to wax philosophic for a moment. However, cliche it may sound, law is both a science and an art. At its core, law has everything to do with people, the stories people tell and the lives that people live. Yes, yes, there is black-letter law, controlling statues, rules and regulations and stare decisis. But there is also the psychology of law.
One of the most important aspects of law — and what makes a good lawyer — is the ability to listen. And then to think. And then imagine. The very best lawyers are the ones who refuse to think inside the box but, instead, let their minds range to the possible.
So while my mentor was right — people come to a lawyer for a specific purpose and it is your job to get them where they want to go — sometimes the road to be traveled is one they hadn’t thought of. And to get there, you sometimes have to say, “no.”
CHOOSING A DIFFERENT PATH
A good lawyer must be honest with his clients. Today, I wrote a client memo that concluded in perhaps a little more polished legalese, that we likely could not get the client to his goal, that the facts and the law did not support what he wanted to achieve. But then, I laid out some alternatives, some of which may well be palatable.
Were I not honest with him, he would spend time, money and precious energy chasing legal unicorns. And that would do neither him, the courts, nor me a whit of good.
Sometimes a good lawyer must say “no” but then bring his client with him down another path that begins to feel like “yes.”
By the way, the guy that wanted to crush the ex came into the fold. And once he vented, he was a lovely fellow. We developed a relationship of mutual trust. And after saying “no,” I lead him to a different satisfying “yes.”
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 and at either of his email addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.