“The Customer is an Idiot”: Not being a client’s employee

There was a time when an attorney was a respected professional whose wisdom and advice was sought after by the members of the community.  We were more than sharks in suits who went after the highest dollar amount, we were learned men of an honorable profession.  Neighbors would come to our offices for not only legal advice, but life advice.  Our opinions were held in high regard, and we were viewed as trusted mediators and advocates for our clients.

Abraham Lincoln once said the following about lawyers:

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

First, WHAT THE HELL …Mr. President?  “Discourage litigation” is the worst business advice ever!  How on God’s green earth am I supposed to hit my billables if everyone is being reasonable about easily resolved legal issue?

Seriously, though, the very fact that quote exists tells you something about how lawyers used to be viewed.  We weren’t “legal services providers,” we were the educated men who solved problems in a fair manner and ensured justice was carried out.

I’m going to let you in on a secret of modern legal practice:

Our clients don’t respect us. At. Fucking. All.

 

Take Gary, for example.

Gary, which is obviously not his real name because Jesus-fucking-Christ I want to keep my license to practice, is a client.  Gary is a small business owner, and since I started representing him we’ve had a couple of instances of butting heads.  Generally, however, Gary is a good client.  He pays his invoices on time, and he pays them in full.  However, Gary, like most self-made men, likes to punch outside of his weight class at times.

Dealing with Gary is an adventure.  He fancies himself a writer, so every legal document comes back to me with his suggested revisions to standard language that lawyers use. “We should use ‘believes and therefore avers,'” he’ll say, “I know that’s what happened!”

“How,” I’ll ask.

“Because that’s just how they are.”

Gary and I tend to go round and round like this with every document.  I give it to him to look over, he finds a dozen things that he believes are wrong because he doesn’t understand what they mean, then we have an hour long meeting where we fight as I explain, repeatedly, that out of the two people in the room only one of them is an attorney.  Eventually Gary storms out, and a day later I get an email apologizing for his actions.

Recently, however, Gary dropped a phrase on me I’ve come to hate: “I’m the client, what I say goes.  You work for me.”

First, it amazed me that this was his response to receiving what was, likely, one of the smaller invoices I’ve ever sent him.  Second, it rubbed me the wrong way to read that I worked for him as if I was an employee.  I’m not an employee of my client.  I don’t work for my clients.  I work with my clients, I take actions on behalf of my clients, but I am not an employee.  I’m a lawyer.

I explained this to him in the easiest and nicest possible way, surprisingly with a fairly small amount of yelling.  “No, I don’t work for you,” I explained, “I work with you to reach your legal goals.  You hired me to represent you, it doesn’t make me a worker.  I explained this when you first hired me, and we go through this about once every few months.  You tell me your goals, I determine if you can reach them and the best way to do so.  I consult with you, but you don’t direct my actions.”

“Well, I don’t get updates except when I pay the bill and for the past three months they’ve all been the same,” he protested.

“I update you when you pay the bill because otherwise I’m going to send you updates every day and you’ll pay for those,” I explained, “If you want updates more often than that, ask for them.  We’ve been doing this for a while now, this has never been a problem before.”

“Well, it seems like you’re just dragging your feet on this discovery stuff.”

“Litigation is time consuming and expensive.  We’re following the normal process here.  If you want me to talk settlement, I will.  If you want me to skip straight to depositions, which we definitely aren’t ready for yet, I’m going to tell you no.”

“I pay your bill,” he repeated, “so I’m the customer.”

I recall the barely seething rage between my eyes as my thoughts started with My god, he better not say it…

“…and the customer is always right,” he finished, putting the invoice on the table.  “I mean, what’s with this bill, are you guys hurting for money or something?”

Oh.  Oh fuck.  He did it.  He went from treating me like an employee to accusing me of gouging him.  Well.  This would require some tact.

“Get the fuck out.”

“What?”

“Get out.  You can come by tomorrow to pick up your file and I’ll notify opposing counsel I’m going to withdraw.”  Personally, I don’t remember how I actually phrased that, but I do remember when he sat forward and grabbed the invoice again.

“Look, I’m going to pay the bill, there’s no reason to…” he began, backing off from his prior position.

“No,” I answered, “You’ve called me an employee and you’ve accused me of bill padding.  I’ve represented you and your company for two years now.  I’ve never submitted a bill that was padded, and I normally write time I would bill to anyone else off.  There isn’t a single time you’ve emailed or called me that I haven’t responded in less than three hours, sometimes multiple times a day, on evenings, weekends, and holidays, so you know how to contact me.  It’s your responsibility to ask for the status of your own case, as I have other clients and I will not update you when there’s nothing to update you about.  We were clear on all of this.  Since you aren’t happy with the representation you’re receiving or the results I’m achieving for you, which, to date, have prevented you from being held liable in roughly ten different actions, I feel it may be best for us to part ways.  I’ll remain in the current litigation until you find other counsel.”

A pin could have dropped in my office.  I mean, it wouldn’t have been heard, because I’m not a heathen and my office floor is carpeted, but had the office been hardwood you probably would have hear it drop.  Gary began to speak, but I opened the office door silently and indicated he should leave.  Grabbing his invoice, he did so.

 

Let’s look real fast at another Lincoln quote:

A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.

I’m gonna say this: that’s the most accurate description of a lawyer’s services that you’ll ever read.  When a person hires an attorney, and you young bucks remember this, what they are paying for is not a servant.  They are paying for your knowledge, your ability, and your time.  We forget that far too often and cast ourselves in the role of servants to our clients, beholden to their checks and hired only to figure out how to accomplish their every desire.  How did that happen?  How did we hit this point?

Our clients stopped respecting us as professionals, and started to see us not as learned people of the law but rather as…I already emptied my stomach this time…”legal service providers.”

See, a “service provider” is someone who exists to render things to a client.  They are people whose job is to make certain they serve.  “Service” itself is not a concept of advising or providing counsel, it is a concept of acting in a subservient manner.  It is the act of being a servant.

Waitresses and waiters are “servers.”  Retail clerks are in “customer service.” And now lawyers are “legal services providers.”  To some of our clients, this means we exist to fulfill their every goal, in the manner they want us to do so, without question.

To some extent, folks like Gary can be forgiven for having this belief.  There are a lot of attorneys out there who have adopted a “customer service” approach to legal practice, and for some people that works.  They view their jobs as being, essentially, a legal genie: “You tell me what you want and I’ll make it happen.”  If a client asks for something, the “legal services provider” bends over backwards to get it for them under the mantra of “they pay the bills, so they’re the boss.”  When some lawyers act like servants, and present themselves as servants, the layman can be forgiven for getting confused and thinking all lawyers are servants.

There are problems with this approach, though, and the main one is that acting as a servant for our clients isn’t actually our job.  Our job is to give advice and take action that represents the best interests of our clients, to consult with them, and to suggest and advise them on how to act.  Our job is not to wait on them hand and foot and find arguments that support whatever their petty hearts desire in the moment that they come into our offices.  Or as I’ve said before, “I represent your interests, not your desires.”  If those two coincide, great.  If they don’t, though, it’s not my job to tell you they do.  It’s my job to tell you they don’t.

The commoditization of legal services is something you see every day.  Go to Avvo sometime and see how attorneys will answer questions for nothing more than getting their name out there.  Watch TV and listen to the lawyer ads that say “my job is to serve you.”  Watch how attorneys conduct themselves with clients, selling themselves and striving to keep every client from ever hearing bad news.  A client can be forgiven for thinking that a lawyer is nothing more than a glorified retail clerk with a special license, for believing that legal representation consists of us answering to their whims.

An attorney who allows a client to believe that, however, can’t be forgiven for doing so.  To some extent, I would say that an attorney who does that is derelict in their duties to their clients, because there is a reason they’ve hired us in the first place: we’re the people that know what to do, and we’re the people that are supposed to protect them.  By bending to a client’s every demand, and by allowing them to continue in the belief that we are nothing more than independent contractors, we don’t only lower the value and standing of our profession.  We actively hurt our ability to represent our clients’ interests, because they don’t respect the fact that sometimes we can’t be their legal genie.

How does that hurt our ability to help them?  Say settling is in their best interests, but they don’t want to settle.  They want to go to trial.  It’s a no-brainer that you have a duty to try and advise them to settle, right?  How much do you think they respect your opinion if they view you as nothing more than a servant?

Set limits, and set them early.  Tell your client how an attorney-client relationship works, and don’t budge from it.  Make certain a client understands that you represent them, but are not their employee.  Maintain your professionalism with a client, and sometimes stand your ground.  Most clients will respect this.  The ones that don’t are going to be trouble down the road, and will likely blame you for their own unwillingness to listen to you.

As for Gary? Gary is still a client.  Later that day he and his business partner came into the office to talk to me.  Gary apologized and started explaining that he felt frustrated with how slow things were going, and how little seemed to be getting accomplished.  I told him I understood that, but it was his job to ask questions about the status of the case or why we’re taking actions we take.  I explained that attorneys do not typically ask clients how we should proceed, because we are the trained professionals and they are the dumbshits who got themselves in a position to need us in the first place.  I reassured him that he can always contact me to get an update on his case, and I’d be more than willing to meet with him more often if that’s what he wanted, but he wasn’t going to dictate every aspect of the case.

Because he’s not the lawyer, I am, and while I’m his advocate, I’m not his employee.

-BB


Author: BoozyBarrister

From a riverboat to a law office, the BoozyBarrister is a civil litigator with a bad attitude.