For the clergy, it’s “Practice what you preach.” Doctors are offered a taste of their own medicine. If you played sports, you are familiar with too-old-to-play coaches imploring players to “Do as I say, not as I do.” And who of us missed out on a frustrated parent yelling at us to “Do as I say, not as I do”?
But what about lawyers? Where is our timeless truism? Do these ageless maxims not apply to our learned profession? Are we not in need of reminding that we need to follow our own advice?
Certainly we do, otherwise I would not have found myself feeling guilty over struggling to heed the same counsel I so often give my clients.
There is very little disappointment in this world that can match what you see in clients’ faces when you have to explain to them that while their case has merit, while the facts weigh heavily in their favor, and while any conscious jury would certainly agree, the cost of litigation, the associated stress, and the possibility (no matter how slight) of an adverse outcome make asserting their claims inadvisable.
Justice? Principle? We have probably the greatest judicial system in the world, but it does not come without a price. And sometimes that price is too high, or at least disproportionate to any benefit that could be achieved.
So why, then, did I nearly ruin a wonderful vacation with my wife worrying about a few hundred dollars a client refused to pay after achieving what I thought was a more than successful result?
Just like any dispute, ours involved a flurry of emails and faxes, accusations of impropriety, barren threats and talk of lawsuits. I even went so far as to send the requisite Revised Rules of Professional Conduct notice alerting my client to the North Carolina State Bar’s program of fee dispute resolution.
All this for a few hundred dollars – dollars that you would have thought were my last on this Earth.
Were not the same distraction from my regular duties, the associated stress, the costs of litigation, the possibility of an adverse result, and maybe even the risk of a bar complaint enough to dissuade me from even considering legal action?
After much gnashing of teeth and swallowing of pride, better sense (eventually) prevailed. I surrendered.
But why was that so difficult? Was that not the same advice I so often give my own clients with such a cold demeanor that I have to remind them that I don’t necessarily agree with my advice, but that it is the prudent course? Am I the doctor who prescribes awful-tasting pills or painful shots, but refuses to take them himself? The preacher who rails against sin on Sunday and commits the same every other day of the week?
Isn’t it time lawyers had our own cute phrase to remind us that the answer to our own problems might be staring at us from the mirror? Certainly there is no shortage of those willing to poke fun at the failures of lawyers or the irony of our inability to heed our own advice.
In this instance, by representing myself, I ended up proving the old saying: The lawyer who represents himself has a fool as a client.
So I learn once again that the best advice is that which I already have given but have resisted hearing. Maybe I can turn that to my advantage.
I shall walk into my bookkeeper’s office and announce that we are finally closing that file, we won’t be collecting that fee after all, and I made that decision by taking the advice of a brilliant lawyer.
Gustafson is an attorney with Essex Richards in Charlotte. His practice focuses on general, commercial
and employment litigation. He also counsels small businesses on lending, corporate and real estate matters.