Don’t Let the Client’s Problems Create Problems for You

Being actively concerned about your clients’ problems will naturally come with the territory if you have a heart. When you are representing someone who is about to lose their home due to fraud, or lose visitation of a child through a custody battle, you can’t help but be awed by the life-altering nature of your representation.

I still lose sleep worrying about my clients’ cases. Sometimes the stakes are just so high I shudder at the potential outcome. I have complete confidence in my own abilities, backed by a great success rate, but you can never eliminate all the vagaries of litigation.

However, I now have fewer sleepless nights because I eventually realized that the stress was coming from two directions, and a roadblock could be placed in one of those paths. There is the unavoidable stress that is going to come from any litigation because you want your client to prevail and are concerned that the judge or jury will reach the wrong conclusion.  But there is often another source of stress created by the client. That stress can be eliminated if you are firm with the client.

For example, I used to have continual problems with discovery responses. The requests would come in, and my paralegal would immediately send them to the client with a deadline for the client’s input, far enough in advance of the due date for us to meet with the client and finalize the responses. Inevitably that deadline would come and go with no response from the client, and we had to act like bill collectors, bugging our own client for the responses, while seeking extensions from the other side and hoping we won’t ultimately be sanctioned.

In some extreme cases, I even had clients that simply refused to respond to discovery, especially requests for admissions. There’s something about requests for admissions that sends some client into orbit. They think that admitting to any fact, no matter how innocuous, provides the other side a victory.

“Admit that Exhibit 1 attached hereto is a true and correct copy of the contract.”

“I won’t admit to that!”

“But it is a copy of the contract. We attached it to our complaint.”

“I don’t care. They’re up to something. I won’t admit it.”

This is a perfect example of making the client’s problem your problem. If the client doesn’t want to cooperate in the process, he is free to make that decision. Now when the deadline comes, the client gets one friendly reminder. The next “reminder” is a nice letter telling the client how much we have enjoyed representing them, and how we are saddened that we cannot continue representing them because of their decision not to cooperate in the discovery process. We enclose a substitution of attorney for them to sign. That always generates a phone call from the client, and we schedule an appointment to sit down and prepare the discovery.

In one case a woman came to me in tears, because she thought she was about to have her case thrown out of court. She was representing herself in the action, and had been served with a motion for summary judgment. Based on her understanding of motion deadlines, she thought the opposition was due the following day. She had no idea how to oppose the motion, so she was sure that she was going to lose her case.

I looked at the motion, and found that her fears were based on a misunderstanding. She had calculated the deadline under the rules for standard law and motion matters, not knowing that a motion for summary judgment provides much more time for an opposition. In fact, she had 60 days remaining to file her opposition. As you can imagine, she was thrilled with this news. She left with my fee agreement, promising to sign and return it with the required deposit. And in fact, she did return with the signed retainer, albeit without the fee deposit, 60 days later. Having dodged the bullet once, she waited until the day before the opposition was due to seek to hire me.

The old me probably would have scolded her for waiting so long, and then proceeded to set everything aside so that I could deal with the motion on an emergency basis. But the wiser me declined the case. I hated that the client would probably lose her case for failing to oppose the motion for summary judgment, but I did not create the problem and would not pay the price for her delay. I have no problem with emergencies, but I am not going to put my name on a rushed pleading.

In retrospect, I realize she was probably setting me up. Both times she visited me, she said the money would be forthcoming, but that I had to deal with the emergency. When I alleviated the emergency the first time, she just waited until it was once again an emergency, hoping I would deal with the motion before realizing she was not going to make good on her promise to pay me.

Circumstances like this will arise often in your practice. Emergencies can be a great source of business. I have been referred a number of trials because it is known that I am willing to step in on the eve of trial when a conflict arises. But for a successful and fulfilling practice, you decide which emergencies you want to deal with, and don’t let the client create stressful deadlines for you.

Embrace the stress that naturally comes wanting to win for your client, but keep things in perspective. Remember that almost all of the problems faced by clients are self-inflicted to some degree. A woman may be going through a horrible divorce through no fault of her own, but she is the one that decided to marry the schmuck in the first place. A homeowner may be at risk of losing his home because he used it as collateral for a loan, but he made that decision. Your task is to do your best to get the clients out of these predicaments, not to take on the weight of their bad decisions.

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