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Guest Commentary: Lawyers operate in different universe from clients

By MARC GUSTAFSON, Special to Lawyers Weekly

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In a recent conversation with two lawyer friends, we each commiserated that, despite the differences in each of our practices, clients often use us as a sounding board to vent their frustrations. (A not so cheap sounding board, I might add.)

Recounting the meeting that had made him late to our gathering, one friend explained that he had come from an engagement that ran long due to a client just wanting to have his problem heard by someone who wasn’t related to him and hadn’t heard his gripe several times before.

I discovered early on during intake consultations with prospective clients the need to explain my role and the limitations on what I could do to assist the person seeking my help. This usually involves explaining what I perceive as two different universes that exist and highlighting the one in which I practice. Over time, this little speech has gotten rather routine, but not less relevant.

It goes something like this: there are certain things that involve good and bad; right and wrong; things that we just don’t like. There usually isn’t a lot that I can do to help them in these areas. For example, I can’t do much about a neighbor’s dog that barks too much or a boss that is just impossible to deal with. What I can help them with is the legal issues that might parallel some of these other issues.

In almost every employment dispute a prospective client has been offended by an employer. Typically such offense presents itself in the form of termination, but not always. Before the question can even be presented, I know exactly what landed this person in my office. Isn’t this discrimination? At which point I break out my trusty speech.

I can’t really help you with the good and bad, the right and wrong. What I can help you with are legal issues. I have to go in front of a judge with a legal problem that he or she can resolve. That’s just the world in which I live. And then I go through the various causes of action and the associated costs and then watch as the blood slowly drains from the client’s face.

This isn’t to say that I’m cold or disinterested in helping with these issues. It’s just that there isn’t much I can do. And while I joke that I’m happy to take this person’s money, I tell them I don’t think that going down that road is ultimately going to solve the problem.

In some cases, the outcome being sought isn’t even an available legal remedy. I tell them that even if we go through the great lengths and cost of legal action, the endless discovery and legal wrangling, and if for some crazy reason we make it that far, a trial, the offending party won’t ever be required to say “I’m sorry” or to admit to having actually done anything wrong.

Sure, just like every other lawyer, I like to offer my crack diagnoses of medical issues based on the two or three med-mal cases I have been involved in, but I don’t feign to have the ability to professionally diagnose or counsel anyone. (Note this column does not attempt to address issues that require professional counseling. This is a job that should be reserved for mental health professionals.)

This doesn’t mean we should run from our clients who exhibit the need for a friendly ear. In fact, I believe that in many cases, this is exactly what clients are paying us for.

You see, they have tried every other avenue. People don’t like to fight. But having worked over a problem in their head so many times they can no longer distinguish reality from their own version of the facts, and having told anyone (probably everyone) they know about their problem and how they think it should be resolved, they have come to you. I believe this is because our profession has been bestowed with the designation of fixers.

I also believe this designation to be rightly deserved. Our legal education and training teaches us both ethical and moral values, and the dedication, professionalism, and competence required of the legal profession are the same virtues needed of a judicious counselor. So while it might have been our legal advice originally sought by a prospective client, it would be wrong to turn a deaf ear to someone who otherwise sought our counsel.

In my view, potential clients come to lawyers not only because we are perceived as fixers, but because we are viewed as masters of the law. The buck stops with us. Having agonized over their problem for some time, clients seek our counsel for a definitive answer to the question, “Is there anything that can be done?” Even if the answer is no, such decisiveness will allow the client to start the healing process and to move on to other matters affecting his or her life.

As so gracefully extolled by retiring professor Edward D. Re of the St. John’s Law School to the New York State Bar Association, “lawyers, who have traditionally been honored for their skill as advocates and litigators, have it within their power to be honored as healers and peacemakers, and that, in addition to serving as ministers of justice, they can also become ministers of peace.” Maybe it is, after all, this peace that our clients seek.  

Editor’s Note:Gustafson is an attorney with Essex Richards in Charlotte. His practice focuses on general, commercial and employment liigation. He also counsels small businesses on lending, corporate and real estate matters.

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