People I Met Practicing Law

People I Met Practicing Law Episode Three: Zero Trust

Eleanor practiced family law.  She was pretty smart, and she knew all of the technical stuff cold.  What Eleanor was not that good at was the part about dealing with clients.  Especially vulnerable clients.  Such as people going through a separation or a divorce.

Although I never practiced family law, I certainly learned a fair amount about it in the process of my own domestic reorganization, and I do understand that family law is an area of practice that is different from many others. 

The clients are usually unhappy going into the legal process, and there is absolutely nothing about the legal process which is likely to improve how they feel about it.  Court proceedings are drawn out.  Some spouses abuse the process as they seek revenge against the person who they thought that they previously loved.  On top of that, emotions are often raw, money is frequently in short supply, and change is everywhere in the lives of the combatants.  I have found that people do not generally like change much.  It makes them anxious.

Eleanor liked to frequently remind her clients that “this is family law” which apparently meant that all of the rules applicable in other areas of practice did not apply.  To Eleanor, that seemed to mean that her clients, and not their spouses, were the enemy.

You see, Eleanor believed that the prime directive that she had to keep uppermost in her consciousness at all times was that the clients, because they were unhappy and under a great deal of stress, might turn on her at some point.  Eleanor lived in absolute fear that a client might sue her at some point or challenge her accounts, and everything that she did was done for the purpose of minimizing those possibilities.

For this reason, Eleanor made sure that every document prepared for submission to the other side or to the court was ‘perfect,’ which to Eleanor meant that it was very long and detailed, and comprehensively addressed every possible issue.  The fact that overworked judges did not want to read such lengthy submissions did not matter much to Eleanor.  No one was every going to be able to claim that she had overlooked something.

Eleanor also wrote very long reporting letters to her clients, confirming absolutely everything that she had already told the clients and on occasion including things that she had not actually told her clients, but wished that she had told them.  She wrote these letters frequently.

Of course, all of this attention to detail required that Eleanor spend a lot of time.  Billable time.  Billable time that she charged to her over-stressed and under-funded clients.

In at least one case that I am aware of (and it would not surprise me if there were many more), Eleanor’s bills hit six figures and kept going and going, despite there having been minimal court proceedings and very little money to fight over.  By doing so, she exhausted the resources of a client who one would have expected was very well-funded.  Of course, at that point Eleanor dropped the client like a lead balloon. And the client had Eleanor’s legal bills assessed.  There was a settlement.  The client got some money back.

The very thing that Eleanor was so concerned would happen had actually occurred. The client turned on her.  I would guess that Eleanor thought that her cautious approach was vindicated and that she continued to practice in the just the same manner, but with a renewed sense of passion about protecting herself from her clients.

I am willing to wager that to this day Eleanor has never figured out that she was the author of her own misfortune.  The client turned on her because there was no trust.  Over and over Eleanor proved to the client that Eleanor’s principal concern was about protecting Eleanor, not the client.  She earned no trust and no respect.

There is a lesson for lawyers in this tale.  Yes, family law is different than some other areas of practice, but the fundamentals of the lawyer-client relationship are the same.  Successful lawyers put their clients first, and in doing so build trust and respect.  Family law lawyers and every other lawyer need to take reasonable steps to protect themselves, but when a client senses that the lawyer is more concerned with protecting themselves than protecting the client, the relationship is doomed.

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