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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Clients

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2009

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

A train ride on Acela Express from here to New York City, on time during a driving snowstorm, is a memorable ride. Add to it that on one such recent trip, I was lucky enough to sit next to an acquaintance who practices law in New York City.

The lawyer and I spoke in generalities as we watched the snow fly. We speculated on what New York City would be like when we got there.

We then got down to business, serious business—the clients we should avoid. We decided to list them. Here is that list, written on Acela note paper:

1. The client who says he has a perfect case. Send that client to a lawyer who specializes in perfect cases.

2. The client a judge and jury will dislike. Send that client to a lawyer you dislike.

3. The client who wants to know whether you are mean enough for the case and whether you know how to fight in court. He wants to destroy his former partners. Send that client to a lawyer you really dislike.

4. The client who says he would like to bring a lawsuit to get justice and is not interested in the money. You might tell that client only the lucky few get justice, and he does not look like someone who is that lucky.

5. The general counsel of the corporate client who says he hates the chief executive officer and that he himself would like to leave and join a law firm. There’s a hot potato.

6. The client who wants to sue a neighbor for defamation. Tell that client the neighbor probably has no money to pay a judgment. Furthermore, the jury may like your neighbor better than it likes you.

7. The client who has received a subpoena for documents and asks, “What would happen if these documents happen to get lost?” Send that client to a former prosecutor you dislike.

8. The client who has a briefcase filled with letters with the envelopes attached. An envelope attached to the letter is a clear sign the client is suffering from a severe case of paranoia. End the interview by peeling the envelope from the letter. The client will grab back the envelope and immediately leave the office.

9. The client who wishes to move for a new trial, or take an appeal, in a case that has been lost, and prior counsel got all the money. Tell that client you could have helped him in the beginning. You could have won the case for him. Now, it is too late.

10. The client who has agreed to a settlement but has changed his mind and wants to switch lawyers. Tell that client you know his lawyer, and that lawyer is one of the best.

11. The client who is dissatisfied with her third lawyer because he recommended that she settle her case. Tell that client you do not take cases where you are the fourth lawyer.

12. The client who says, “Don’t worry about your fee.” That comment suggests you will be well paid. Experience teaches that you will not be paid at all.

13. The client who knows the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is tapping his phone and that he is being followed. Refer that client to a lawyer who dislikes the CIA.

14. The client who says he has already interviewed four other firms, and he will make a decision in the next five days. Even if he were to select you, he will cause trouble.

We spoke about the unpredictability of the outcome of litigation—the judge, the jury, the witnesses, the uncertainty of the law. We agreed that the lawyer may influence the outcome by fewer than 20 percent of his cases. Nevertheless, we do our best so we do not suffer the shame that concerns the self-respecting craftsman when he knows his work is unworthy of his talent.

I was aware that my acquaintance had a reputation in New York City as a lawyer to see when a lawyer needs a lawyer.

He said lawyers need lawyers because of a number of things. There may be an action brought by the Office of Bar Counsel alleging an ethical violation. There may be a case where a lawyer is sued for legal malpractice. There may be a case where a prosecutor is claiming that the attorney–client privilege does not apply because of the crime fraud exception. There may be a case where a lawyer is in a dispute with his partners over the distribution of profits. There may be a case where a lawyer is going from one firm to another and taking clients with her. She needs legal advice.

We agreed that lawyers are easy clients to work with most of the time. They are aware of the unpredictable nature of a legal proceeding. My acquaintance cited a case where he was representing a lawyer who had been sued for malpractice. There was to be a summary judgment hearing on the case. He called his client and asked if he wanted to be present. The client said no, telling his lawyer to just call him after the judge had ruled. No matter what happens, even if the judge tap dances on the bench, he will understand it.

My acquaintance said that in New York City, the overhead in big firms is crushing. The lawyer who brings in the business does not want to contribute to that overhead, and so he takes his group and his clients over to a smaller firm where the operating costs are half of that of the big firm. This triggers partnership disputes. Most cases go to arbitration because all limited liability partnership agreements have complicated arbitration clauses. They are framed to protect the firm and disable the partner who is in a dispute with the firm.

As we approached Penn Station, we noticed that the snow had stopped. The conductor was picking off the ticket stubs and repeating, “Make sure you take your belongings from the overhead racks. We will be in New York City in three minutes.”

Jacob A. Stein, a partner at Stein, Mitchell & Muse LLP, can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].