In the Sunday section of the Tacoma News Tribune, there is a regular feature called “10 Things ________ Won’t Tell You.” It didn’t take me long to come up with 10 things that we lawyers should tell our clients. In fact, some of these should be shared well before you are hired. Once you are on the case, some misunderstandings may have become embedded in the relationship and continue to plague the communication.
With that in mind, here’s an adapted version: 10 Things You Should Tell Your Client. I can’t say these are all of them, nor can I say they are in any priority order. There are a lot of other things that should be shared early, but these are the ones that I feel are vitally important.
- “I don’t know.” Fear of saying this to a client might lead to not being paid. Attorneys, especially the younger ones, believe that they should know a lot about everything. When you tell a client that you “don’t know,” this conveys to the client that you are honest, even at the expense of your image (or ego). Honesty is occurring; that’s a very good thing.
- “You are an idiot.” This isn’t fun to hear, but some clients need to hear it, either because it is true or at least it tells conveys to them how you perceive them or their position. I have known situations where, when the client leaves the office or courtroom, their attorney (certainly not me – I’m talking about other attorneys here) will exhale something like, “What an idiot!” If they are paying you, then they should be entitled to know where you stand. As a corollary, I think your client is entitled to tell you the same thing. It really is best to get all things ironed out before heading to court. You and your client should be as much on the same page (for a trial or hearing) as possible.
- “Don’t ask me ‘if’ questions.” This will save your client money and you wasted time, because there is really no end to “if” questions. Possible scenarios (like pianos falling from the sky and crushing you) are certainly very frightening. But if their mind will constantly move to asking those questions, the clock is ticking, their bill is going up, and it is often difficult collecting for that wasted time.
- “It isn’t worth the cost.” The client’s goal of suing his or her neighbor because of that tree branch sticking over the property line is probably not worth the price of the attorney and court filing. There should always be a cost-benefit analysis working within the conversation. Your client will appreciate this and probably come back to you for advice when there are other issues.
- “The court isn’t the best place to solve this.” For a long time, I had a sign in my office that read, “The biggest thing we have to lose is the fantasy of vindication in court.” Just because all the client’s friends, including their mother, thinks that they are right and the other side is wrong doesn’t mean that the court (or jury) will reach the same result. Tell the client that their mom may be brilliant, but she is perhaps not objective.
- “The restraining order is a piece of paper.” This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important in many cases, but to think that it will stop an attack from an unreasonable, obsessive mental disorder is fantasy. See #5 above.
- “I don’t believe everything you say.” “Reasonable Doubt for a Reasonable Price” might not be the best deal. If you let yourself be fooled, don’t be surprised in court when everyone in the courtroom is laughing except you and your client. One of your realities as an attorney is that you are hearing three voices at once: 1) your client’s voice, 2) what the other side is probably going to say, and 3) what the court is likely to think.
- “It is an adversarial process.” The court system’s quest for the truth is built on something called the “adversarial process.” Here is a crude corollary: If you want to find out the truth about something, hire two scientists to attack each other. From this, the truth will float to the surface. In the courtroom, this process is tiring and expensive, and when children are involved, it is often harmful to them. In custody cases, the best way to injure children is to attack the other parent. Use attacks carefully. Clients are often influenced by the media and come in with hostile expectations as to how the process should go.
- “You should trust your gut.” When you meet with a prospective client, you should have a gut sense, as well as intellectual sense, about what is being discussed. Quite often, the client can start enjoying his or her own voice so much that the words just start tumbling out. You aren’t sure if you were heard by the client and you aren’t sure you understand what the client is saying. Slow the process down and demand clarity. Clients are often so wrapped up in their issues that they really aren’t open to advice.
- “That is not a realistic fear.” The legal system is full of hidden problems; some of a client’s fears are realistic and some are not. You should help the client focus on the biggest dog nearest their rear end. Until that dog is dealt with, the others may not be critical. And some of the other dogs simply don’t exist. You job should be to rationally prioritize the issues for them.