No Easy Cases (Please!)

Dan Hull of What About Clients asks: Does client service mean “being nice” to clients?; he has some interesting observations about the differences between good clients and bad clients. (And if you don’t already know the answer to Dan’s question, you don’t know Dan.)

Now, Dan’s practice is very different from ours: while his firm’s ideal client is a large business with general counsel, and while I welcome the GC’s calls when he needs to refer an officer or employee of the business to a criminal-defense lawyer, I’ve got zero interest in representing corporations. I’ll leave the “bet-the-company” litigation to Hull McGuire.

But I like his reasoning; like all good reasoning, it has applications outside its original context:

These types of “clients” who come to your firm don’t “get” good lawyering. They can’t distinguish your firm from the generic, uninspired, cookie-cutter, go-through-the-motions but well-meaning law firm down the street. They don’t “get” business generally.

In my practice, some of the potential clients who don’t get good lawyering are the ones who call with “easy” or “simple” cases. When these folks (or their “fiancees”) call, it’s all I can do to follow Dan’s advice:

Don’t get the wrong idea. Any would-be client who calls your firm–even flaky ones who you don’t want to even talk to–should be treated with respect and routed to someone who can help him, her or it. Don’t make them think lawyers really are heartless schmucks. And remember, those callers and inquirers are clients (even if just temporarily) the moment they disclose facts about the matter. Your duty at that point is more than just one of good manners, getting them to the right lawyer, and showing some class.

I will admit that one of my shortcomings is a deficit of warm fuzzy telephone manners; even when family members call me, I spend as little time on the telephone as possible. I love to communicate with people, but the telephone is my least-favorite means (maybe second after the fax): it lacks both the full communication value of a face-to-face and the writerly potential of email.

My telephone manner might in the best of circumstances fairly be described as brusque (J claims I’m getting crotchety), and God help you if you’re a telemarketer (especially if you’re a moron like “Kuby” from “The Search Engine Guys”, who called  me again after I told him I wasn’t interested and hung up on him).

So when I figure out (because you use the magic words) in the first three seconds of a telephone conversation that you are looking for cheap-generic-criminal-defense-lawyer-guy, my objective is to get off the phone. I’d like to be able to get you to “the right lawyer”, as Dan counsels, but I don’t know any cheap generic criminal-defense lawyers whom I can, in good conscience, recommend.

Referrals are exceedingly important to me: not only receiving them (though referrals from other lawyers and appreciative clients bring the bulk of my business) but also giving them.  I know some lawyers who charge less than me (because they are less experienced) but do terrific work; I’ll refer people in trouble with limited means to them, because I know they’ll be appreciated. But if I have a choice between referring a potential client to someone whose services he might not appreciate, and not referring him to anyone, I prefer the latter (that’s why I’ve pretty much stopped referring people on family cases). And if a guy thinks (or his “fiancee” thinks) his case is easy, he’s not going to appreciate anyone I would refer him to.

I love a challenge. Nothing gives me more professional pleasure than taking on a tough case in which the previous lawyer had counseled a plea, finding some elusive fact or imaginative defense, and securing a dismissal or an acquittal. But just as much as I enjoy solving the tough problems, that’s how much I don’t enjoy going through the motions on an easy case.

If you think your criminal case is an easy one and you’re right, I’m not going to have much fun and you’re not going to be grateful. If you think your criminal case is an easy one and you’re wrong, I might have fun with it, but you’re not going to appreciate it. Either way, if you have an “easy” case, save us both some time and aggravation, and call someone else.

0 responses to “No Easy Cases (Please!)”

  1. Mark,

    Would you share with us some of the “magic words” used by prospective clients or their fiancees, please? The “magic words” I most often hear are when the caller’s very first question is “how much do you charge for (insert offense name here)?” I’m curious as to the verbiage other lawyers are getting.

    • Sure. You’ve got to understand the code.

      It starts with “I’m calling . . . .” Starting out with a statement of the obvious? Not a good sign of serious intent.

      Then there’s “for some information”. This is code for “for a price quote”, which (as you’ve discovered) is code for “I can’t afford you”.

      Then there’s “about my fiance’s case”, which is code for “my boyfriend / babydaddy has promised to marry me if I hire him a lawyer”, which means the caller is looking for a cheap lawyer and, again, can’t afford you.

      Or there’s “about a criminal case.” This suggests that the caller assumes that he’s calling someone who isn’t focused on criminal cases, and therefore isn’t serious.

      I have never had a phone call that begins with “I’m calling for some information about my fiance’s criminal case” lead to my retention. I wouldn’t even refer these people to you.

      Contrast that with: “I was arrested Friday night for DWI, and I need a lawyer.” Only two more words, but an infinite amount more information. This is the mark of a person who’s making a serious effort to hire a lawyer.

  2. Well, I think most potential clients equate “easy” cases with “cheaper” work. And let’s not forget that a significant percentage of criminal defendants cannot afford to hire a qualified lawyer. But they’ve got to try, don’t they?

  3. This has to be the absolutely most-est 360 degrees roundabout way you could possibly haven taken to get your point across… when you could have just asked me: “Jamie, won’t you please consider not referring me any more shitty clients?”

  4. Honored, sir. But I heard you were a pretty sweet guy on the phone, for a Texan. More than just: “Well, Jack, I don’t what where you’re from, or what you’re used to–but let me just tell you how we do things downtown…”

  5. Love it. I am all about helping, but if they are shopping- I send them packing. I usually say, “If you are looking for the cheapest lawyer, I am not it.” This is a great topic. The Client “judo” factor sometimes so not worth it. I hope I get even better at sorting them out up front.

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