Some time ago, I posted about client and case selection and how important that was, particularly during an economic downturn. Well now that things have supposedly picked up and are coming up rose petals, client selection remains as important as ever. It’s always the threshold consideration.
About 7 years ago, I became acquainted with the precepts of litigator and writer Dan Hull. I hadn’t thought of Hull in a long time. Nor had I given much thought to his “12 Rules of Client Service” or his first rule until the other day after I’d met with a new client for the first time.
I spent more time than initially anticipated with this client. And it was a good thing. I truly enjoyed our preliminary meeting and getting to know the client first — well before getting into details and diagnosis.
You have to like your client.
On the way back to my office, I thought of Hull’s blog “What About Clients?” It’s been around a long time. Last time I checked, the blog was still among the most popular on the Web.
Granted, he has a corporate client orientation. But all the same I strongly believed then and now that his client service rules are essential reading for lawyers young and old. They’re as timely today as when he posted them in 2005.
The first rule.
But of all Hull’s rules, the one that’s always resonated is his first one: “Represent only clients you like.” Probably it’s because long before I ever heard of Hull, it was the goal I’d written in my business plan — the one I wanted guiding my practice.
Was it a pipe dream? Is such representation even doable? The answer is yes — but it’s not easy. Sure under attorney ethics rules, there’s a helpful albeit qualified comment that says under Rule 6.2. “A lawyer ordinarily is not obliged to accept a client whose character or cause the lawyer regards as repugnant.” See also Scott Laufenberg’s excellent essay, “Representing Repugnant Clients Every Lawyer’s Choice?”
So when I came across Hull’s blog in 2007, I got what he was saying. Years before, matters had also crystallized further after I’d attended a bankruptcy for the non-bankruptcy lawyer continuing education program. That program was supposedly for non-bankruptcy practitioners but almost all the attendees in the room were bankruptcy lawyers. It seemed everybody knew everybody else — like old home week. But what struck me that day wasn’t the course content.
It was that some of the lawyers in that room didn’t like their clients. These lawyers spent their break time loudly commiserating about their clients.
Lest anyone think I was casting aspersions on my colleagues in the bankruptcy bar, the answer is no. Regardless of practice area, we face the same challenges. I could’ve just as easily heard the same gripes at an employment lawyers conference or a criminal defense or family law program.
And it wasn’t like I’d been trying to overhear any conversations. Quite the opposite. I felt like the schoolboy in the confessional who covers his ears to not overhear a fellow sinner’s too loud admissions of sin in the confessional booth.
It didn’t matter if I was standing out of normal earshot or sitting several rows away. These lawyers spoke loud enough about their unlikable clients to have been overheard by the occupants in the next room. Then and there, I resolved all the more to do my best to avoid representing clients I didn’t like.
What I especially liked about Hull’s client service rules was that he placed them in an ethical and quality service-oriented framework. Lawyers owe their clients “some of the highest personal, professional and business duties imaginable,” he wrote. If you don’t like your client — fire him or her “as soon as you ethically and practically can.” And then there was the money quote, “You will not do good work very long for a client or customer you do not like.”
He sets a high bar. But always, there’s the reality check. When I meet new lawyers, many forced into solo practice — not by choice but by circumstance, I repeatedly find a disconcerting urgency to take on all comers. Facing crushing school loan debts and personal needs, there’s a sense of no boundaries. If a client’s paying, no legal work can be turned down. No matter the ethical duty of competence.
And as for wanting to like your clients, are you kidding? So long as a client has funds to pay for representation — what’s there not to like? Surely in hard-pressed economic situations, Hull’s first rule has to be out-of-step? I like to think not.
Admittedly, turning down a paying client even one that comes across like an acre of garlic isn’t easy when ‘baby needs new shoes.’ The cold truth is that faced with life necessities or payroll or rent, the first rule is often the first to go.
In those circumstances, doing what’s right is not only not easy but becomes a question of discretionary aspiration. It’s more longing than loftiness; more hunger than high-mindedness.
But perhaps a work-in-progress goal is still better than the alternative. The harder truth about lawyering is that our choices always catch up with us anyway. In the end, as the late Maya Angelou said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”