Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Will We Ever Fully Understand Clients?

I assume all private criminal lawyers go through the same thing; a string of great calls and clients, followed by a string of mind numbing annoying calls from those that will never become clients, or if they do, will suck the life blood out of us.

I've had a week, well, a couple days, of the latter. Calls from people in terrible, desperate situations that I'll never get to resolve, either because the client doesn't have or won't pay the fee, or because I've politely declined based on something that caused me to think I'd regret taking the case.

I've reached the point where although it costs me money, I don't want to take on the clients that think a retainer buys them not only representation, but my full attention all day every day, my use as a tool for their strategy, and my cheerleading for them when I know the truth to be not so bright.

After 15 years I think I have it figured out, but I don't. In some ways I'm glad. There's still that caller who seemingly will never become a client, but becomes a great one. Then there's that seemingly great client I take on who at some point in the representation decides that I am the reason he is in this situation.

One thing that never changes is the rough and tumble at the point of resolution. Most clients want their case dismissed. If that's not what they want, they "just don't want to go to jail." I've never met a client that told me the opposite.

But what will never change is the thought by some clients that whatever result you obtained, there is something better. Even when a case is dismissed, I'm often asked if the prosecutor will pay the attorney's fees, or if we can sue. When the client is facing a minimum mandatory prison sentence, and receives an offer of probation, I'm often asked "can we do better?"

There's nothing wrong with wanting better. I was taught as a young lawyer to ask (the prosecutors) until they say no, and mean it. But I've tongue in cheek developed a theory that a criminal lawyer should be careful about doing something good for a client, because it won't be good enough.

Sure, there's the appreciative clients, the one's that know they dodged a bullet, the one's that understand compromise is when both sides are unhappy. But I still don't know what to say to a client that "just wants the felony dropped," and after it's dropped to a misdemeanor, asks if we can do better. Sure, I'll keep fighting, but they dropped the felony to a misdemeanor as a compromise. A compromise takes both sides. The only way to "win" outright in criminal court, is a dismissal or acquittal. This is why when someone asks about my "win/loss" record, I respond with "what do you consider a win?"

My job in every case is to get the best result for my client. I have no problem telling my clients that tell me about how the case is going to affect their job, family, life, and other collateral aspects, that no one cares. I care, but the state generally doesn't care. Many people have families, jobs, status in the community. A particular prosecutor may care, but in general, the government doesn't care.

There are other things that never change - the client who says you never told them something you've told them ten times over, the client who wants to make sure you tell the prosecutor something that won't have any effect on the case, and the client who says it sounds like you're "not fighting" for them because you tell them something that can only be described as brutal truth.

Clients are not to be judged. This is something I learned in my first days as a public defender. Being judged is not the same is being honest. Some clients don't know the difference. It is my job to be honest with clients, regardless of that article I read years ago that said in white collar cases, always be positive when speaking with the client. Why is that? Should I say everything will be OK when I know it won't? Should I tell the client I don't think he's going to jail when I know the judge he's before always puts defendants in jail for the same crime? Should I tell him he has a great, defensible case, when there is a box full of of wiretap and video evidence?

Representing clients in criminal cases is never dull. While experience as a criminal defense lawyer helps in dealing with the different personalities and "buzz words" and phrases that indicate a certain issue has arisen, I don't believe I'll ever fully understand each and every type of client.

In a strange way, that's what makes this job fun.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter