Grace. Class. Loyalty to the Client.

by Jamison Koehler on March 2, 2012
Aerial view of DC


“I want a new lawyer.”

The defendant and his lawyer have clearly had some type of disagreement, and this is what the defendant, standing at the bar of the court alongside counsel, says to the judge.

Who knows what the issue is?  Maybe the lawyer wasn’t returning phone calls. In this case, the defendant would be justified in seeking new representation. Maybe the lawyer had simply given her client a healthy dose of some well-needed but tough advice. In that case, the client should be grateful.

Whatever the cause of the dispute, nobody likes to be dressed down in open court. The question is how the lawyer reacts.

I have heard the lawyer’s name before. As a former public defender, she has a good reputation. But I am not impressed with the way she handles herself today.  She bickers with the client and rolls her eyes. She looks back at the gallery with frustration and impatience as if to seek the support of the other lawyers sitting there. “Okay, Judge,” she says finally.  “I move to withdraw.” She then marches out of the courtroom with a final eye roll as soon as the judge has granted her motion.

It is not a question of the client always being right. Every lawyer in the room knows that clients can sometimes be unreasonable, particularly when you are dealing with someone with mental health or addiction issues. The judge knows this too. The question instead is one of grace, class, maturity, and most of all loyalty, both during and after the representation. You don’t worry about your own reputation at the expense of the client.  You never try to make your client look bad.  It is when the client is acting at his most unreasonable that he most needs your help.

14 Comments on “Grace. Class. Loyalty to the Client.

  1. For you to be openly critical of a lawyer, she must have been absolutely horrendous. On the other hand, it’s good to see that you’re willing to do something you find so distasteful in order to promote the critical duty to put the client’s interest first, even if it means the lawyer can’t vindicate her honor at the client’s expense.

  2. Notice that I didn’t provide any identifying information which, in this case, wasn’t necessary to make my point. But I am getting there, SHG, I am getting there, distastefulness and overly refined sensibilities notwithstanding.

  3. Also, it is one thing for a lawyer with 30 years of experience to write about ethics. It’s another for someone with just a couple of years. In the latter case, you can come across as sounding smug and self-satisfied, thereby undercutting the point you are trying to make. We newer lawyers need to tread a little bit more lightly. Practicing ethically is one thing. Preaching ethics is another.

  4. You’re quite right about preaching ethics, and coming across as smug and self-satisfied. It’s an occupational hazard when trying to promote the best of the profession in an age where the concern for the client lags behind both the welfare of the lawyer and the desire to be liked by others. Sometimes, a professional has to make a choice of whether the priority is making friends for the lawyer’s financial benefit or contributing to the betterment of the profession and the welfare of clients.

    Not everyone seems to be cut out for the sacrifice, and so they leave it to others to do the dirty work. Some hope there’s a way to skirt the downside of losing friends while promoting ethics and denouncing the unethical. I’ve never seen anyone do that successfully, though many want to believe it can be done. And if someone is able to accomplish it, I think that’s great, and I will happily defer to their efforts.

    In the meantime, I’m left with my inept smug and self-satisfied efforts rather than doing what’s good for me at the expense of the profession and the clients. That’s just what foolish old men do, even if it doesn’t bring them adoration.

  5. “In the meantime, I’m left with my inept smug and self-satisfied efforts rather than doing what’s good for me at the expense of the profession and the clients. That’s just what foolish old men do, even if it doesn’t bring them adoration.”

    I don’t buy for that a moment. And neither, I suspect, do you. The only way you can term the efforts as “inept” is if your goal was to achieve instantaneous and widespread change — as opposed to working one blog entry, one lawyer at a time. It is like the guiding voice of a parent in a child’s head. It may take a while and you may not notice it at first, but after a while you realize that what you have said has had some lasting effect.

  6. I try and hope for the best. Any positive change, even incremental, helps. That’s why I praise this post, as a step in the right direction.

  7. Great post Jamison.

    As for this fellow SHG he too makes some excellent points. I like his writing style. Sounds like he has something to say. He should start a blawg.

  8. Your laugh graf nailed the issue, and all of the salient points. This post would be a great, succinct read for a legal ethics class (and probably more useful than reading a number of cases on these issues).

  9. Make that “last” graf, not “laugh” graf — I was chuckling at what SHG wrote while I was typing.

  10. Jamo, named after my favorite spirit that I can’t afford to drink… God bless you for that, you bastard.

    First off, that was a nicely written post and some food for thought.

    Regarding your comments, here is what I don’t get… there is a lot of crap out there thanks to the internet. Anyone with a keyboard can write write anything they want. And a lot of baby lawyers (like yours truly) are reading this crap as though the author has some kind of insight, special knowledge, or has been coached in the right direction. It’s usually been created or propped up with the help of lawyer marketers rather than a bona fide practicing lawyer, who appreciates risk.

    Just this week, we have Twitter deciding who the “Rocket Lawyer of the Year” is. Yes, you can vote a colleague “Lawyer of the Year” without knowing a thing about how they practice, how their firm is run, or what it is they actually do. They’re the “Lawyer of the Year” because their friends like their Tweets.

    Wouldn’t you agree that’s a little, shall we say, irresponsible, because it gives potential clients the impression that this lawyer is “good”, has been recognized by their peers, or is somehow better than other lawyers, when in fact they just got a lot of Tweets…? How does getting a lot of Tweets reflect your ability to be a lawyer in any way? Oh right, it doesn’t. But there is a real danger that clients could somehow think that recognition is meaningful.

    When you add it all up, a young lawyer might easily get the impression that these “old dinosaur law practices” are being left in the dust for SEO, Twitter parties, predictive coding, and Pintrest (which my wife says is cool — apparently you can collect a LOT of sweet cat pictures with it).

    So this is what I don’t get… are you saying that being critical of stuff that harms the profession should be reserved for lawyers with 10+ years of experience? That younger lawyers should sit back, say nothing, and hope those with more experience do the job?

    Why is that? Because The Simpsons did it? Hurt feelings? Fear of sounding smug?

    Personally, my wife tells me I’m smug every day, and it’s not based on my writing style. And while I find her comments deeply hurtful, and I’m also sad that she doesn’t read my blawg, I’ve just come to accept certain things.

    In any case, why shouldn’t the newer generation should grow a sack, stop worrying about who they might piss off, and exercise their own professional independent judgment?

  11. Oh, this must be the happysphere I’ve heard about

  12. Mr. Rushie (the whole last name thing is just one of my many affectations):

    Greenfield has been tough on many of us for not following his lead in calling out other lawyers on ethical issues. All I am saying is that it is more difficult for a lawyer with 5 years experience to do this than for a lawyer who, like Greenfield, has been practicing for 30 years. For one thing, nobody listens to us. For another, it is difficult for us to do it without sounding self-serving and pious, thereby completely undercutting the message itself.

    Your recent blog entry about taking your first (and disastrous) deposition was remarkably honest, but that was really the exception. The way I have typically seen it done is for one of us to post something about some big bad other lawyer and then to compare that lawyer’s performance with how we would have handled the situation. (See above blog entry.) That type of entry almost inevitably comes across as embarrassingly self-congratulatory.

    To which you and Greenfield reply, who cares? Fair enough. I have already admitted to having “overly refined sensibilities.”

    I’ll have to get a link to all those cute cat pictures on Pinterest. And, if it is any consolation, my wife doesn’t read your blog either, or mine.

  13. You guys all realize, that 95% of all criminal defense lawyers in that situation wouldn’t roll their eyes or make faces. This is not because they are super ethical. It is because they already collected the fee, will not return it, and will walk away.
    Most withdrawals are necessitated by “a break down in the attorney client relationship” usually caused by the client running out of money. In that case, the lawyer is perfectly happy to have the judge let him out.

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