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When you work for a big firm that has big corporate clients, you typically deal with the corporate clients’ junior in-house counsel and midlevel corporate managers for whom legal entanglements are routine. The cost and outcome of lawsuits might affect the company’s bottom line and the attorneys’ and managers’ annual performance reviews — but lawsuits aren’t generally devastating to corporate clients. But for a solo attorney, many of your clients are individuals who typically don’t have more than one significant legal problem in their lives. For you, clients’ problems are just other routine lawsuits, but to your clients, lawsuits are very important and personal events — business, money and sometimes life are at stake. Dealing with individual clients is a whole different world. You have to be one part lawyer, one part psychologist, one part money manager, one part confidante, one part coach — and usually play a few other roles as well. The role or roles that you’ll have to play will usually be determined by the type of client. HANDS-ON CLIENTS These clients will test your patience — and your fax machine. One particular “hands-on” client drove me nuts. I represented him in what was essentially a partnership dissolution action. He was very bright. His business had gone under, leaving him unemployed with a lot of time on his hands, and he was a slightly neurotic obsessive-compulsive person. I always try to keep my clients informed and in the loop on their cases, but he wanted to be involved in everything — and I mean everything. We had endless strategy discussions. He made me listen while he dissected the personality and psychology of every person involved in the case, analyzing every nuance of every remark, despite my repeated assurances that the judge would decide the case on the law and the evidence, not on which party she liked better. He insisted on reviewing every document before it went out and edited each one line by line. I was afraid to send a basic “please find enclosed” letter without first letting him see it. He once left me three voice mail messages in the five minutes it took me to visit the ladies’ room, each one informing me that he was “just trying to reach” me. I explained to him several times that although his high level of involvement was, of course, his privilege as the client, it was costing him money because it took a lot of my time. After I won at the trial and got a nice judgment for him, of course he asked for a discount on the final bill, and was shocked when I refused. Make sure your retainer agreement clearly spells out your billing structure, and remind clients every so often that they’re paying for the time they’re soaking up. HANDS-OFF CLIENTS The opposite end of the spectrum are the clients who desperately want to dump their problems in your lap and forget about them. In a way, these clients make your life a lot easier. You can get the work done quickly and efficiently and exercise your judgment without a lot of discussion or flak. Be careful, though. Some decisions really are the clients’, not yours, and sometimes you have to force the clients to tell you what to do — or at least give you the okay on your recommendation. I had one “hands-off” client who kept getting sued for — oops — forgetting to pay his bills. He didn’t care about the details of any of his cases — he just wanted me to get him out of them. I came up with a great, creative defense in one of his cases, but he caved in and paid the plaintiff much more than he should have, purely to avoid meeting her face to face at the settlement conference. I’ve had several other hands-off clients who dutifully paid their bills and returned my phone calls, but never asked to see a draft pleading, never commented on anything I sent them, rarely if ever asked me any questions, and unfailingly responded to mine with “whatever you think is best.” Give these clients plenty of lead time — on documents you need them to sign, for example — so you don’t find yourself asking for one extension after another because you couldn’t get what you needed from them on time. Also, keep these clients informed even if they say that they don’t really want to know what is going on. Send them copies of important pleadings and letters — even if you think they just throw them in the trash — explaining key issues and confirming their agreement with key decisions. If these clients get a less favorable result than they expected in the case — especially if it’s accompanied by a large final bill from you — the hands-off clients may wake up and decide you’ve done it all wrong. You’ll be glad then that you left a paper trail. LAWYER CLIENTS Everyone has heard the old adage that “the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Forget it. Lawyers don’t believe that. Lawyers can be problem clients because they think they know as much as you do. Good “lawyer clients” recognizes that they don’t have the expertise and knowledge needed to handle a particular situation. They have hired you because you do, and then they stay out of your way and let you do your job. These are a few and far between. Lawyer clients want to oversee and review everything, make a thousand “helpful” suggestions, second-guess your decisions, and think (with the benefit of hindsight) that they could have done everything better, much like the hands-on clients discussed above, but with the added complication of a law degree. These Lawyer clients also think they understand a field of law in which they’ve never practiced. I’ve found that nonlitigators don’t understand the rules of evidence very well, if at all, and don’t realize that litigation really is a specialty with many rules — that I know and they don’t. They only dimly remember their civil procedure bar review course, but nevertheless, they try to litigate right along with me. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One of my lawyer clients just didn’t understand the importance of documentary evidence and the necessity of meeting deadlines in litigation. When he first hired me, I told him to find and bring me everything in his file — every document, photograph, note or other scrap of paper that related in any way to his case. I told him not to try to decide what was important or unimportant, just to bring it all to me and I’d sort it out. After conducting privilege review, I produced the file. Opposing counsel then asked to review the original documents. Imagine my surprise when the original file turned out to be twice as big as the file my client provided me. And imagine my surprise when the original file contained a document that showed that the client had already received a refund for a big chunk of the damages we had claimed in the complaint. And a year after filing the complaint, as the discovery cutoff rapidly approached, new bits and pieces of information trickled in from my “lawyer client.” What part of “bring me everything” didn’t he understand? CLIENTS IN DENIAL These come in two flavors: defendants who won’t admit that they did anything wrong, and plaintiffs who think they’ll become multimillionaires on their little cases. One of my “clients in denial” was sued for a flagrant code violation: something so basic that anyone, regardless of legal knowledge or ignorance should have known it wasn’t a good idea. But this client refused to acknowledge any responsibility for the situation. My goal was to negotiate the best possible settlement for this client — not win the case, because that was impossible. But soon the predicament became all my fault: A “good, tough lawyer” would magically solve his problems, the client said. That’s when I developed one of my favorite lines for my recalcitrant “clients in denial”: “I didn’t get you into this. I’m just trying to get you out of it.” It’s tough to do a good job when your own client is against you. Take a look at the withdrawal provisions in your retainer agreement, and withdraw from this kind of representation if you just can’t work with the client any longer. And if you don’t have some kind of “irreconcilable differences” clause in your retainer agreement, start using one. One prospective “client in denial” came to me with an employment claim, alleging that another employee harassed her with a few off-color remarks and jokes. She wanted a million dollars for herself plus enough to cover my fees. Of course, sexual harassment is a very serious matter, but she was indignant when I told her she just wasn’t going to get a million bucks for a couple of bad jokes. When asked about the evidence supporting her damages, the “client in denial” blithely told me that it was all speculation: “If I could prove this, I wouldn’t need a lawyer,” she said. “That’s what I think happened, but nobody knows for sure. That’s why I need a lawyer.” She was confident that the jury would award her a large judgment because they’d be sympathetic to her plight against a big corporate defendant, despite the lack of evidence supporting her claims. She thought that her relatively minor injury — if any — was worth serious money, and that I would work a miracle to get it for her. Clearly, she’s watched way too much TV. I tactfully declined that case and wished her well. CRAZY CLIENTS I should have known something was amiss when a client begged me to take his case and insisted on paying my retainer in cash. Naively, I thought he wanted to prove his bona fides to me by offering me cash. It wouldn’t be long before I found out that he had been waging a legal war for years against a neighbor of his, that he filed a false police report to bolster his trumped-up claims and that I was just one in a series of lawyers he’d engaged in this battle. He stiffed me for the rest of my fees, and I didn’t know where he banked because I’d never seen a check. I attribute my bad judgment to inexperience and greed. When I worked at a big firm, partners schmoozed the clients over lunch while we associates labored long into the night on discovery motions, so I hadn’t dealt with many clients. And I didn’t realize the extent to which your own clients will, let us say, “shade the truth” of what they tell you. But one of my “crazy clients” was one of the best clients I ever had. He was very smart, carefully read everything I sent him, made useful suggestions, did everything I told him to do — promptly! — and paid his bills on time and in full. But I always thought that he had a peculiar, distant look in his eyes. Sure enough, his court-ordered psychological evaluation showed that he was completely nuts. Trust your instincts. Be wary of desperate clients. And don’t ever take a dubious case just because you need the money. Clients — can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Good luck. Kimberly Fanady is a solo practitioner in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected] Read Ms. Fanady’s bio.

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