It’s been a long week. I’ve had to have “the talk” with several of my clients. In case you don’t know what I mean by “the talk,” allow me to explain. There comes a point in just about every attorney-client relationship where there is an important decision to be made. You give your assessment, and the client takes your advice or rejects it. This week has brought with it a mixture of rejection with a healthy dose of acceptance laced with insults. Weeks like this always make me examine the complexities of the attorney-client relationship.
These thoughts have been in process for about a week or so anyway. Scott Greenfield posted a great post on his blog about the importance of keeping your professional distance and how the failure to do so actually does the client a disservice. However, he does so while criticizing a law firm in Florida that overdoes the whole boundary thing. That firm, a family law firm, writes that they do not work weekends and do not deal with emergencies over the weekend. Of course, sometimes things happen with clients over the weekend, and you should respond. Mr. Greenfield talks about that fact at length.
Of course, balance is a factor, too. It is possible to go too far in the other direction, which may actually be worse for the client that being impersonal. Mr. Greenfield writes:
Ironically, one of the most troublesome ways to deal with clients is to become their best friend. Clients need lawyers. If they want companionship, they should get a dog. It confuses roles when lawyers assume the position of mother, therapist or pet. Clients often need someone to talk to, to vent, catharsis, during the pendency of a case. To some extent, lawyers can offer their ear. But when the ear gets chewed off, we’re appeasing the client but no longer serving him.
Very true. But it seems like there’s something more to this idea of client management/client relationship issue. I’ve thought about it all week and have drafted a Professionalism Matrix.pdf to help me think about client management issues. It helps me, and I hope it will help you.
The best place to be is objective and empathic. If you are subjective and empathic, you do your client the kind of disservice Mr. Greenfield discusses. If you are cold and subjective, you’re the kind of lawyer I sometimes encounter at general bar functions who wonders how I could possibly do a job like mine. Or you’re a prosecutor. If you are objective and cold, then you are the kind of person that many of your classmates were in law school — robotic and efficient.
What does objective and empathic look like? It probably looks like a stroll across a tightrope. And it probably looks different for every client. Many of whom won’t like your objective advice. Many of whom would like for you to be their friend because you’re the only person who hasn’t rejected their personhood in the midst of an accusation or conviction or sentence. What does it look like? It looks like a worn out lawyer. It’s hard to have hard discussions. It would be easier to land somewhere else in the matrix. But then you’d be less than your calling requires.