Get Out of My Office: A Hypothetical Interview With a Potential Client

by Jamison Koehler on March 22, 2012
U.S. Capitol Building

A woman and her son come into the office for a consultation. At the end of the hour, the woman turns to me and tells me that they have also met with a number of other criminal defense lawyers.  “Why should we hire you?” she wants to know.

I have to say, I am somewhat taken aback by the question. For one thing, we have just spent the better part of an hour talking through the ins and outs of the case. If she doesn’t have a pretty good sense of who I am by now, I’m not sure there is anything else I could say that would answer this question for her. For another thing, I realize I have gotten spoiled. I used to have the “elevator speech” ready to deliver at a moment’s notice.  It has just been a long time since I have had to use it.

I have never liked this part about private practice:  the selling of my services.  Although I am glad to talk about the case, I don’t want to talk about myself. There is a reason people don’t like job interviews.  Nobody likes to be judged.  Nobody wants to have to dance for the money.

I am a stubborn person.  So I refuse to.

Although I am tempted to end the interview the moment she asks me this question, the practical businessman in me restrains the impulse.  I throw it back to her instead. “What would you like to know?” I ask her.

She has the standard questions. How many years have you been in practice?  Have you handled this type of case before?  What is your success rate with this type of case?  And, then almost inevitably, my favorite question:  What is your relationship with the prosecutor and judges?

There are many things I won’t say, and tonight is no exception. I equivocate. I qualify. If I am feeling ornery, I point out how I cannot answer many of the questions they have asked me. If I am feeling particularly ornery, I suggest that any lawyer who would answer these questions is acting unethically and is that who you want representing you?

But I don’t say this tonight because I realize that is exactly who they want representing them.  Every case is different, I say instead. I cannot guarantee success. And, no, I don’t have any special influence with the prosecutors or judges that I can exert on your behalf.

We have gone from an animated discussion of the merits of the case to this. Suddenly I feel tired, deflated, and eager to get them out of our conference room so I can get home to my son and the pizza that is awaiting me.  Although the mother sounded so reasonable on the phone and the facts of the case intrigued me, I am regretting that I agreed to this in-person consultation to begin with.

I finish my half-hearted equivocation and we sit there in silence for a moment, observing each other across the conference table.  Thank you, the mother says finally.  We will be in touch.

I wait with bated breath.

18 Comments on “Get Out of My Office: A Hypothetical Interview With a Potential Client

  1. Sounds like a scene from “Huis Clos/No Exit.” I think that Sartre wrote the line “l’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is other people) just for us criminal defense lawyers.

  2. This didn’t happen years ago. People didn’t shop for lawyers like articles of clothing, or ask the “requisite” questions they’re instructed to ask by articles on the internet written by marketers. This approach favors the lawyers willing to lie, willing to say anything to score the case, willing to answer questions to the “consumer’s” satisfaction, as if there is a meaningful answer the ubiquitous “what are the chances” question.

    Welcome to what the internet and marketing have wrought. You became a lawyer just in time.

  3. I can see some definite attractions of practicing criminal defense, but having to sell myself to potential clients? Ugh. Especially after giving them an hour of your time to discuss what’s important, the case. My sympathies.

  4. Mr. Confidential: And in your case, a more difficult sell. Seriously, though, most of the questions are fair, and the stakes are high. It is just that sometimes I don’t feel I have the stomach for it.

  5. I tell potential clients that there are a lot of good lawyers out there, and once they have assured themselves of the potential lawyer’s competence and ability, they should focus on their comfort level with the attorney. Trust is the key component of the attorney-client relationship. If you feel more comfortable with one of the other lawyers you’ve talked with than you do with me, then go with them and don’t look back.

  6. Max: I think of that line from an old Beatles song: “Aaaannna! Go with him!” Yes, absolutely. That is in fact the mature way to handle it. But I have to admit to a little curiosity about whom they have chosen, and why.

    I never ask but when they do offer, I am always really annoyed when the answer comes back: I am going with so-and-so because he has been working there for 30 years and knows all the judges and prosecutors by name. Or: he is pretty sure we can get this case thrown out even before the arraignment.

  7. I had a similar experience a couple of weeks ago with a potential client. I told him that I didn’t have my win-loss figure handy and that if he wanted to keep looking for another lawyer that was fine with me. I even told him that I could recommend a few other excellent lawyers for him to call. At that point I think he realized that I wasn’t going to play his game and as if a thunderbolt hit him he knew that he was wasting both his time and mine. He did want to play the big shot though and ended the conversation with, “you’ll definitely be hearing from me again” as if he needed to reassure me that I was still in the running. I learned a long time ago that not giving a shit whether a person hired me or not was very liberating. I know a few other criminal lawyers who swear that the less time they spend stroking potential clients the more likely that person will be retaining them.

    I think sometimes we should all be a little bit more like the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider from the movie The Man Who Wasn’t There. As he said, “I litigate. I don’t capitulate.”

  8. CM: Just as with romance, the old “hard to get” strategy can be very effective. There is nothing more gratifying than telling a potentially difficult client to find other counsel. And pandering is not the way to impress anyone. It is for similar reasons that I rarely negotiate my fee.

  9. As a potential someday client of a criminal defense lawyer, I sure wouldn’t want a lawyer who has a poisonous relationship with the judges and prosecutors. I wouldn’t want to suffer because of the baggage he’s carrying. On the other hand, once those guys have been eliminated from consideration, it seems to me that looking for a lawyer who has a “special relationship” with the prosecutors and judges is a really bad idea.

    I mean, if we’re talking about a lawyer who is such great friends with the prosecutor that he can get really sweet deals, what would make a client think that relationship doesn’t run both ways? Do they really think the prosecutor is such a swell guy that he would never ask for anything in return? I’d hate to hire that “connected” defense lawyer hoping to get a sweet deal only to discover that I’m the guy he’s selling down the river so he can get more sweet deals for his other clients.

    (And if I did hire him, I’d have no right to be surprised when he tried to cheat me on the bill and propositioned my wife.)

    It sounds like you have the right approach to these kinds of questions. When I did consulting work — and even when I went job hunting — rather than take the usual advice to answer every question in as positive a manner as possible, I was usually pretty up-front (but polite) about the kinds of things I wouldn’t do or didn’t know how to do. Better to find out we don’t have a match during (or even before) the interview than three months into the job.

  10. Draughn: I hadn’t thought about the flip side. Some defense lawyers may be so interested in preserving their special relationship with the prosecutor or judge that they may not be willing to take the gloves off when the interests of their client demands it.

  11. P.S. to Draughn: That insight is worth a blog entry of its own. If you don’t do it, I will it. Without attribution, too. Even the part about cheating you on the bill and propositioning your wife.

  12. Jamison: Actually, I did that blog entry a few years ago. Some material in my comment may have been recycled from that post (although I didn’t realize how much until I took a look at it just now). It has a particularly good quote from Mark Bennett about these kinds of relationships.

  13. I’m a young, struggling solo attorney who can’t really afford to turn down work, but I totally sympathize with this. When I get these kinds of questions, my immediate reaction is to give them curt answers and blow them off. At the very least, I am brutally honest about my limitations, and explain, “Look, if you want someone with years of experience, that’s not me. I’d be happy to refer you to someone else.”

    Among other reasons, I fear that this would be the type of client who would be adversarial to me, and might grieve me if they don’t like the result. I don’t want the potential headache.

    Usually I don’t hear from them again, but at least once, this attitude did work out for me very well. I had this guy come in who, after talking about the case, said he had spoken with an expensive hot-shot firm, and had an appointment with another guy that afternoon. “Here we go,” I thought. I told him about my limitations and he told me he liked me, and thinks he might hire me. He ultimately went with me, paid me reasonably well, and was thrilled with how things turned out.

  14. Careful Draughn, he means it. Already has his sights fixed on my wife…

    But it’s an interesting point. I’ve never really encountered a defense lawyer, and I’m friends with many, backing off for fear of harming our relationship. I think both sides (again, speaking from my own experience) realize we have a job to do. I would never take it personally if my great plea offer was rejected or a defense lawyer insisted on a trial. Very unprofessional.

  15. Jamison – I’m surprised you didn’t turn it back on them and tell them about how you are very selective in the cases you decide to take and the clients you decide to represent. Why should you choose them?

  16. Two rules:

    1. No free consultations. Otherwise, you spend all your time running a gratis law clinic for non-lawyers.

    2. Response to “why should I hire you?” The attorney-client relationship is akin to a marriage. Sleep on the decision to hire a lawyer, I tell folks. If they have to ask why, they shouldn’t hire you. There is either a fit and chemistry or not.

  17. This is something that will be taught in law schools in the future. The competation is getting greater and most attorneys are not sales people but great in their practice of law. You have to keep in mind a Law Practice is a business and in business you have to do it all. Just remember they did not teach “ethics” for many years and it is the bad attorneys that give the practice a bad name. Keep you head up and plug on also be thankful the phone still rings along with the emails. A good marketing plan helps and lets not forget a good MBA. Good Luck!!! Just some thoughts from a business man who really respects a good talented attorney.

  18. Hi, Jamie-

    A few thoughts, on top of some of the excellent comments already left:

    – I am wary about including anyone but the potential client in the initial consultation, and about parents having any role in the case beyond what I okay. Here, it was the parent, not the potential client who asked you the uncomfortable question. When I proceed in that fashion, I tend to end up with a high percentage of clients and parents with whom I get along well.

    – If anyone pays my client’s fee other than the client, I request that they both sign a contract addendum confirming that the paying party obtains no additional rights merely by being the paying party.

    – Annoying and irritating questions and communications from criminal defense clients and their kin and friends sometimes is motivated by fear, and don’t just end with the initial consultation. I do my best to empathize with the person whose words irritate me, without giving in on my principles. At the end of the day, I give my clients — who are in the criminal justice system hotseat — latitude to irritate me that I am less willing to give to the client’s kin and friends.

    – My ideal is to bill for all initial consultations. I have modified that by billing for most meetings other than for drugs, drunk driving and weapons, after considering my experience when I did not bill for meetings. No free phone consultations unless the potential client is a substantial travel distance from my office. I generally tell potential clients that the meeting won’t last beyond 30 minutes from the scheduled start time, and that they will be billed for a know show or late show without telling me in advance.

    Thanks for your posting. Jon

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