Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How clients see lawyers and the process

One of the toughest things for lawyers is understanding how their clients feel about the process.

For experienced lawyers, the process is what it is. We get our client through the process as best we can. There can be a number of steps, and many of them are mysterious to our clients.

Because of our experience, we are used to it and it's hard for attorneys to see how unpleasant this is for the clients.

Our clients get angry at the other side's lawyer. Usually this happens when that lawyer is doing a particularly good job as a lawyer. When this occurs I go out of my way to stress that this is a good lawyer doing his/her job. I'm afraid this often falls on deaf ears.

Our clients have quite a bit on the line. In personal injury cases they have twice as much at stake as we do, and this is their only case. As a personal injury lawyer, I've got quite a few other cases in the hopper. In criminal matters they may be looking at prison time if we lose the case. No matter how the case goes, the prosecutor and defense lawyer go home. In drunk driving cases (which are criminal) their right to drive (officially a privilege but I still consider it a right) can be suspended or revoked. The DWI lawyer drives away regardless of the result. And in election law matters, our clients may be deprived of the right to be a candidate on the ballot after they've worked hundreds of hours getting signatures.

In the end, many of our clients perceive the law, the lawyers, the judges, and the whole system to be unfair. They're right that it's not fair. No system is perfect, but experienced lawyers know that the process we have is better than any alternative we've seen.

I like to explain why lawyers are so unpopular. Figure Client A and his Lawyer B are going up against Client C and Lawyer D. There's four relationships between clients and lawyers -- client with his own lawyer (x2) and client with the other lawyer (x2). Each client is generally going to dislike, and often hate, the other side's lawyer. So just for starters, in 50% of relationships between non-lawyers and lawyers, the lawyers are hated. Now one side has to lose. That client is probably not going to like his lawyer. So we're at 3 out of 4. Last, the winning client might be happy with his lawyer, but then again, it cost a lot of money.

I do find that my clients tend to be satisfied most of the time. We do get a few dissatisfied clients, usually when we get them a good deal on a speeding ticket but they had unreasonable expectations. We got one client a parking ticket from a high speed and she complained about the $150 fine. We saved her more money on the fine alone than our fee, and the insurance savings will be about $1000. But she thought a parking ticket should have a lower fine. Welcome to New York.

I try very hard to explain to clients what usually happens with tickets, and make very clear that we can't promise or guarantee results. Most understand this. Client today called me to thank me for being a man of my word for getting him a parking ticket. I was quick to point out that I had made no such promise, and that it just worked out well. He seemed happy anyway.

Another problem comes when the client expects you to know exactly what's going on with his case at all times. Client called me today at 9 pm to see if I had received something he mailed to me a few days ago. This may shock some people, but many lawyers are not in the office at 9 pm. More important, I don't have every case in my head.

For the client, their case is the most important one they have. I'm sorry to say this, but as a lawyer, your speeding ticket case with a $300 fee is not my most important case. Not too long ago I watched a client get sentenced to nearly 20 years in state prison. I've got another client who lost his leg in an accident. Those cases are more important. But the clients do not understand this. That $300 fee is a lot of money to them. The case is on their minds. They fear that something will go wrong and they'll be arrested (doesn't happen on a speeding ticket in NY) or their license might be suspended (rare, but it can happen). The traffic stop was a dramatic intrusion into what had been a safe and secure life for them.

For the lawyer, the $300 fee on a speeding ticket is not a whole lot. Figuring a typical lawyer needs to bring in $150,000 in revenue to cover overhead and make a decent living. FYI, a full-time secretary will cost $50K/year or more including benefits. Then there's rent, etc. So to get to $150K in revenue if you only do $300 speeding tickets, you'd have to handle 500 speeding ticket cases a year -- more than one a day.

I put it another way to the traffic ticket clients: If you find a lawyer for whom your $300 speeding ticket case is their most important case, he's not a very good lawyer. By that I mean that he isn't handling more serious cases and he's probably not that experienced.

Nevertheless, it's important for lawyers to see how our world affects our clients. A little understanding goes a long way.
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