A Contact Sport
It used to be, when you talked to law students about employment, especially students from fancy pants law schools, high on their list of priorities was “client contact”. “If I come to your firm can I be assured of getting client contact?” or “What attracted me most to your firm is that I’m sure I would get a lot of client contact.”
Client contact is, well, client contact. It means different things for different lawyers. Those of us who’ve been there know it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There really is something to that Chinese curse of getting what you wish for.
For those involved in commercial matters, client contact can mean a civilized lunch at the Quinnipiac Club and conversations about golf, four-wheel drive vehicles and investments. Some conversations though-“Why did you need that many hours to do such a simple task?” “Well, I don’t care what the law says, I want you to find a way around it.” “What do you mean we have to produce those documents? If we don’t tell ’em about them, they’ll never know, right.” “What do you mean you can’t see me today? When I hired you to represent me I didn’t want to play second fiddle to the rest of your clients.” “What do you mean we should settle?” “Are sure you’re tough enough to represent us in this deal?”—inject an unpleasantness into the relationship that makes it difficult to maintain the Emily Post veneer expected of contact with coat and tie clients.
For personal injury lawyers client contact can mean a brief meeting at the beginning when the case comes in. Then we go on to deal with investigators, medical providers, and insurance adjustors trying to work things out. Usually there is a final meeting or two to get releases signed and checks endorsed. If suit is filed, we deal with other attorneys, judges, an occasional witness, court reporters and maybe once more with the client for a deposition. Only when there is a trial is client contact extensive. Most client contact in personal injury cases-“You mean to tell me that’s all you can get me?” “I know a guy who got five times that for one half of what I went through.” “Yeah, well I don’t care if the judge thinks that’s a fair amount, he wasn’t in the accident.” “Well, why don’t you just cut your fee?” “You mean you want me to pay for the subpoenas, the investigator
and the court reporter, too?” “Are you going to fight for me or what?” “Settle? You’re not afraid to try this case, are you?”–often exposes the darker side of mankind’s mercenary nature.
In criminal cases client contact is more extensive, especially in smaller cases requiring frequent court appearances. Every two to four weeks we call, confirm the court date, meet again at court, wait seemingly forever, attempt (usually unsuccessfully) to resolve the case and, if not, leave, only to return again a few weeks later to repeat the same ritual. Frustrations mount-“What’s the matter with the prosecutor, doesn’t she have any real crimes to prosecute?” “What good will it do to send me to jail?” “What kind of lawyer are you? I thought you said this would be over by now.” “You mean they can send me to jail just on his word alone?” “You go tell that judge I’m not taking probation for this Mickey Mouse armed robbery charge.” “Do you think you’re tough enough to fight this case for me?”—and tension increases. That’s another kind of client contact.
Nothing, of course, compares to the client contact in domestic relations cases. Lawyers who labor patiently in those vineyards have a special corner of heaven (or at least purgatory) reserved for them. In these cases all there is client contact.—“Do you know what she said to my daughter about me?” “How about the time when she said she stayed late at school and she was at a restaurant?” “You mean you’re just going to let him lie like that?” “Are you working for me or for him?” “How many times do I have to throw the spaghetti against the wall before she learns I don’t want to eat at six o’clock?” “What do you mean I
have to let him visit the kids?” “Why do we have to put that account on the financial affidavit if she doesn’t know about it?” “Settle? Do you think you’re strong enough to handle this case?”–most of it slightly less pleasant than a group therapy session conducted by Nurse Ratchett. Having clients is one thing. Having occasionally unhappy clients is another. But having a steady diet of those who revel in their unhappiness and demand that you join in is yet another.
Client contact then is not all it’s cracked up to be. No matter what type of case, though, some things are true of all clients:
- Those who get the best results are the unhappiest.
- Those who pay the least complain the most.
- Those who pay the least get the best results and still complain the most.
- It’s not their gratitude that keeps you going.
They don’t teach this at the fancy pants law schools.
On the other hand, my grandfather worked as a stonecutter in the Stony Creek quarry. He came home every night dirty and bone tired, and when it rained, he didn’t get paid. There are a lot worse things you can do than dealing with clients.