Out of court

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First and foremost: TAKE CARE OF YOUR CLIENTS

A high school girl was interviewing me for a class last week, wanting to know what did I like best about defending the accused. It only took a moment as my gaze fell on some thank you cards from former clients. The joy of helping someone who later appreciates it. I showed her the thank you cards and an annual Christmas card I get from one client I represented when he was in high school like her. This is what makes it worthwhile. A few former clients have even mentioned the possibility of going to law school to do what I do. I don't know if any ever did yet. . . But those notions are a good antidote to all the lawyer jokes about greedy, slimy sharks that everyone, including myself, love to tell..

Lawyer jokes are popular because lawyers cost a lot of money and then treat witnesses rudely or prolong insurance claims to pad the bill or argue over the meaning of words such as "intent" or "any." One way to counter this is to work hard for your money by taking care of the client who hires you..

At the start, before I am even hired, I level with people who are charged with crimes. I never promise I can 'get them off.' Generally, and this is well known in the criminal justice system, people who are charged with crimes did something. It is actually rare to get a case where the accused had absolutely nothing to do with the crime charged. True, there are many 'innocent' defendants--factully innocent in the sense that 'some other dude did it;' legally innocent in that they used lawful force to defend themselves; or constitutionally protected in that the police violated the 4th Amendment rules on search to obtain evidence. But, to be sure, those are the exceptions and not the rule..

The run of the mill driving under the influence case invariably involves someone stopped for a traffic infraction who admittedly had some alcohol to drink. The only question is was it too much or not? That is a narrow margin to work with. So when a DUI case comes in my door I don't say I can beat the rap. Instead I listen to the story, promise to do my best and explain the available options. I try to relieve their anxiety. I tell my new DUI client what he or she should do before our next court date and to let me do the worrying about the rest. So often these words alone lift some of the burden of being accused off of their shoulders. And when I do beat the rap or get a deal they can't refuse, the client may not recall whether I was cautious at first or not . . . and they certainly don't care..

Truth is my ally. No guarantees or false promises. I know of lawyers barely out of law school who post clever, fancy ads that are totally false, as they claim experience or success that doesn't exist. Of course they do it because they need business and are just starting out. Some eventually become what they advertise. As a lawyer of 32 years, the old referral system--one lawyer to another or referrals from former clients--is preferred. (Would you hire a doctor based on an internet or yellow pages ad?) For my own part, I don't want people to hire me thinking I am something I am not. When I tell a client I will do something for them, I do it. When a client calls, I return the call. When I am hired and a client owes me money, I still do the job as well as I can. I have former clients, whose cases I won, who still owe me money, . . . and probably won't pay..

In my court appointed cases, I tell my clients I will work as hard for them as for my privately retained clients. Many find this hard to believe. A lawyer who is not motivated by money is not a lawyer many people believe will really work for them. (After all, don't lawyers = money?)Perhaps there is a kernal of truth in that, but more likely it reflects more on the person who believes that..

When I was a public defender in the 80's, I always laughed at the pseudo-sophisticates who shouted: 'I want a real lawyer, not a public defender.' Of course the ones who shouted loudest never earned enough to afford a private lawyer and if any of them did, they would hire a showy lawyer who was more inept and less experienced than most public defenders. Usually the problem with public defenders is too many cases, not enough time, and sometimes not enough experience. But it is not the case that they care less about their clients than private lawyers. Experienced defenders are often more competent than many private lawyers. I was proud of being a public defender and now despite my shift to the private sector, I still take pride in doing my best--no matter who pays my bill. If people don't believe that, it's their problem..

My job only exists to help my client. That is the adversarial system. I live with it every day. Just remember that . . ..

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