While in law school, I worked for an equipment leasing company. My job was to forward claims to collection attorneys and appear as a custodial recordkeeper around the country. There, I learned not all attorneys are Perry Mason, judges don’t necessarily follow the law, and good documentation is absolutely essential to winning breach of contract, open account, or account stated cases.
My law career began in May 1990. During my swearing-in ceremony, the criminal defendants in the jury box rattled their chains in applause (true story). The next step was finding a job as a lawyer, which is where I learned the following four lessons.
MAKE SURE THE FIRM IS WORTHY OF YOUR TALENTS (AND VICE VERSA)
The job market in 1990 was tight due to a recession in the late 1980s (yes, I am that old.) My first job was at a firm that mainly handled bankruptcies, but also dealt with creditors’ rights cases. While dreams of arguing before the Supreme Court danced in my head, I was hit with a healthy dose of reality. On my first day, I was tasked with making collection calls about fees owed as a result of a deceased partner’s work. Needless to say, this was a fruitless and frustrating endeavor.
My first court appearance was no better. My job was to obtain an adjournment (for the umpteenth time) on a 1970s probate file. As I waited in my new Brooks Brothers suit for my case to be called, I silently uttered a mantra: “Please don’t cry.”
When my case was called, the judge — who was presiding over the court for the last time — screamed at me and told me to take that message to the partner. I did and, of course, the partner yelled at me for getting yelled at.
I tried to move on over the course of the next six years, but this firm’s reputation preceded me. The only choice I had was to go out on my own. Fortunately, I had developed a stable of clients that I could take with me.
Being a strong advocate for your clients is only the beginning for a lawyer. Here are some additional thoughts on client relationships.
Vet your client
A claim is only as viable as your client’s documentation. Don’t accept what your client says at face value. Make sure you vet the claim to ensure your client is licensed and/or qualified to do business in your state.
Is the case within the statute of limitations? Is the corporation open and operating? Are there any guarantors? Parenthetically, if a prospective client asks if any cash payments have to be credited to the account, run away as quickly as possible.
Make sure your fee agreement (and your client’s expectations) is clear
The last thing you want is a jury trial on a contingency fee when the estate you are representing has lousy documentation. Make sure your client understands what you write or say. Remember the client, typically, did not go to law school and will have no idea what res judicata means.
Be honest with your client about the claim
When is it time to call a case uncollectible or worth less than initially thought? Managing expectations is crucial to maintaining a good relationship with your client. Remember to listen to your client and make sure you know exactly what is expected of you. Get involved in statewide and national organizations
As a solo practitioner for almost 25 years, this has been crucial to increasing my knowledge, culling resources to call upon, and networking. Volunteer work is the best way to stand out from the crowd in the eyes of clients, and networking, networking, and more networking is the best way to grow your reputation and your firm.
Make sure your client is prepared to testify
This is true even if your client has testified in other cases. The worst witness is one who thinks he or she knows more than the lawyer. Sometimes, the toughest hurdle to clear during trial preparation or the trial itself is getting a client to actually listen. Finding the balance between insisting that the client remain quiet and rudeness is delicate. I once had a client who would fly into Michigan and just show up at my office unannounced. He was a nice guy but controlling him was impossible. I had to withdraw from representing him as a result.
Report, report, remit!
Keeping your client informed is a must; how to report to your client depends on how your client wants information reported. Along those same lines, make sure you send the client’s money to the right office in the manner they choose.
A lawyer’s entire career is based on two things: ability and reputation. Being prepared is not just the Boy Scouts motto, but the watchword for any competent lawyer. Part of preparedness is staying abreast of developments in your area of practice, knowing your judges, and keeping up with technology.
There is no such thing as a routine case. Each case, though it may bear a resemblance to others, will have a unique aspect to it. Know what you are talking about, because the judge and opposing counsel will know when you don’t.
Be aware of timelines from both the court and the client. Submitting a document late increases the risk that it won’t be read. Good luck explaining that to the client. Keeping a detailed calendar is a must. Getting help to manage the calendar is a luxury that we don’t all have, but I have found it very helpful.
DON’T LIE! EVER! Lying to a court, clerk, client, partner, or opposing counsel is a recipe for disaster. There was one state court case in which the opposing attorney created “evidence.” After employing an ink dating specialist and providing the results to the judge and the attorney, the case was resolved very quickly. Another time, I stepped out of the conference room so the attorney could take a private call. When I returned, the attorney was looking through my papers. That attorney was eventually disbarred for reasons not related to that case.
Be yourself. Not everyone can get away with being a bellicose bully. Be respectful to the court, clerks, opposing parties, and your client. It’s OK to be funny if you are not sarcastic in tone. Keep your temper and always be respectful. Remember, today’s opposing counsel could be tomorrow’s judge.
Finally, we all win some and lose some. Sometimes we win or lose for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong reasons. Never celebrate in court when you win or slam the desk when you don’t. Act like you have been there before. Once you get in your car, you can lose the poker face and display whichever emotions you wish. The important thing is making sure you know you did your best. Whatever the result, immediately report it to the client and be honest about the outcome and the options moving forward.
THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE
In conclusion, remember the practice of law is just that — a practice. Make sure you take care of yourself and your family, and not just monetarily. Do what makes you happy, and if your life revolves around work, take a long, hard look at your priorities. After almost 25 years of being a solo practitioner, I realized that my job was my life and came before my family. Fortunately, I met some folks through various conferences and was able to transition to a new firm. The firm and I have the exact same philosophy, making for a happy professional marriage.