Daily Archives: November 23, 2008

It’s the client, my good chap

One of the primary reasons I started blogging was to express my thoughts and feelings about the criminal justice system. But the more I blogged, the more I realized that what it was really about was learning and sharing: learning new things and sharing experiences. Learning how to be a better lawyer, really. For the most part, the blawgosphere has served that purpose and it has enriched me as a lawyer and as a person.

There are times, though, when the blawgosphere exposes its ugly side. Slowly but surely, the blawgoshpere is moving away from actual conversation and closer to pure marketing. Everything is about the blogger and the blogger’s business or promoting their business. It’s getting a little dirty. Take, for example, this: Accident Prone, a public defender blogger, wrote about a common experience a few weeks ago:

Dear Private Attorney,

I know you think you know more than I do. Hell, maybe you do. I know that you think dispensing legal advice without, oh I don’t know, “reading the file” or “knowing about what the evidence is” is a good idea.

In the future, if you’re not going to do either of those things, please do not tell my already deluded client that he “should be able to get” a misdemeanor disposition from a felony. Or else, take the damn case and get what he “should be able to get” for him. Oh wait, what? You can’t/won’t/don’t have a valid legal license to do so? Then shut the f&*$ up!

This was clearly a post about an experience the blogger had in real life, but still was instructive: Remember that it’s about the client and not about drumming up business. It’s not about making a name for yourself, but rather for doing something that’s in the best interests of the client. If you do a good job, you’ll get a good reputation and the business will follow and so on. Really, everyone should know this. I know I keep harping on it, but you’d be amazed how infrequently other lawyers actually act in this fashion. Take this response to Accident Prone’s post from a private attorney:

Dear Public Defender,

I am sorry that I can get a better deal for your client than you can. Maybe it is because I have been practicing law for about as long as you have been breathing. False confessions, eye-witness allegations and testilying cops don’t frighten me. I plea bargain, but I do so from a position of power, even when I am the “underdog”. I give your client a feeling of protection and ability.

Chances are I know, taught, mentored or helped elect the judge or prosecutor you are dealing with and s/he will take a chance on a client I represent because I bring a sense of reliability that you don’t enjoy. That is likely because your investment in our legal community is limited to telling your fellow lawyers what rubes we all are or rolling your eyes as we invite you to belong to our bar associations.

Oh don’t forget that while you are guaranteed a salary,I am not. Hence, you don’t work on every holiday or go in on weekends or even return calls… I do.

I give my clients my private cell number and my e-mail address. I am available to him or her 24/7. I am still in my office at 11pm on a pretty regular basis.

I did my time in Legal Aid. I appreciate the work that you do and I enjoyed it when I was doing it, but let’s face it, if I didn’t describe you, I described many PDs who get a lot of credit for dedication, but aren’t always as dedicated as they think. That is why their client is in my office begging me to take his case, and why I can’t. You can take it though, and you could win his undying loyalty and respect, but it’s not free, you have to earn it.

Warmly
Private Lawyer

Sigh.

This is what I mean. A large part of that comment is purely self-serving. It also belies a fundamental lack of understanding of what Accident Prone’s complaint was and what the greater, more deep-seated problem is that we as public defenders face. This is not a contest between public defenders and private attorneys, yet there is a consistent percentage of the private bar that engages in such divisive behavior.

The real problem is the willingness of some to put aside their professional responsibility and duty to the client to make a quick buck. The real problem is the maligning of the public defenders in order to do so. I know you have a business to run, private lawyer. I don’t begrudge you that. But when you start lying to clients or spreading misinformation that makes my job tougher, without taking responsibility for it, I will not sit silent. Just to make that extra $1500 (and I know it is a tough economy), you are willing to stick your nose into a file, give bad advice and then hold up your hands when asked to deliver. That doesn’t work, won’t work and shouldn’t work.

Look, I’ve said to clients on occassion: “why did you hire so and so?” or “I bet you won’t hire so and so again, will you?” But that’s not because I want him to be my client, but rather because I care about the client and want to see him get good representation and certain attorneys have certain reputations.

Our goal is the same and our clients are the same. We should be working together, side-by-side for the benefit of our clients. Your client today may very well be my client tomorrow. It doesn’t serve his interests for you to bad-mouth me now or promise him the moon.

It is our responsibility, both as members of the private bar and public defenders to quash this nonsense when we see it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen clients – mine and that of fellow public defenders – get enticed by the promises of the huckster. “Well, you can only get me the minimum on murder, he can get me manslaughter”. No, he can’t and I’ll tell you he can’t, but it’s your money and your life. If you want to do it, I can’t stop you, Mr. client. “Well, if I pay him $500, he can get me a program.” Right and so can I, because you’re eligible for a program. Not because he’s in bed with the judge. And this is the problem. Sometimes we’re fighting the fight on four different fronts: the judge, the State, the client and some unscrupulous members of the private bar.

We don’t need to be doing that. All of us in the profession should put our clothes on in the morning with the singular goal of doing something to help a client that particular day. If we don’t, the entire profession gets a bad name.

Scott, to whom I showed this exchange last night, offers his take from the perspective of the private bar. You’ll find some of the same notes being struck there, because he gets it. Let’s hope, after reading these posts, “private lawyer” gets it too.

[We tried to synchronize our posts, but lazy old me got behind. Sorry Scott.]

[Further: Forgive the disjointed thoughts in this post. I wrote and re-wrote it 5 times, so there are leftover fragments from previous iterations.]