In response to my previous post on lawyer misadvice, a longtime PD and friend of the blog asks: when does counseling end and coercion begin? How hard can you push the client to make a certain decision before it crosses the line? To be sure, it is an important question and a difficult one.
The choices that have to be made about all the “big stuff” – whether to take an offer, whether to testify, whether to waive a jury trial – are the client’s domain. We get to unilaterally handle the “other stuff” – what witnesses to call, what questions to ask, what tact to take.
The reality, however, is that most clients will do what their lawyers tell them to. Clients want this and lawyers recognize this: “Ultimately, you have to decide whether to take this deal or not, but…”
This is an awesome power in our hands – which is why I argue that we must exercise it with the greatest care and in the most informed manner possible – that can easily corrupt us and blur the lines between giving advice and making decisions.
There’s a reason that we wield this power: we are the ones trained in the ways of the system, we have the experience and most importantly, the client can never seem to get out of his own way.
So how hard do we push to convince the client to do A when he seems set on doing B, which is detrimental to him?
Clearly, the outer limits of the spectrum are set: one should not take a hands-off approach and merely lay out the alternatives for the client and one cannot make unilateral decisions on the client’s behalf, either by lying or obfuscating or keeping the client in the dark.
It’s the vast expanse in between that’s tricky. When does forceful and repeated advocacy cross the line into impermissible arm-twisting? In true lawyerspeak, I think the answer depends.
It depends on the client himself, the event that you’re counseling the client about and the level of confidence you have in the conclusion you’ve reached.
Take, for example, the decision to testify. It is indisputably the client’s. Yet, most lawyers will tell you that unless the client is compelling, it is usually a bad idea. Clients, on the other hand, will usually have very strong feelings about whether they want to testify. I’ve yet to encounter one who is ambivalent. They either are adamant that they have to take the stand and present their “side” of things, or are experienced enough to know that, in their case, it would be a terrible idea.
If their conclusion is the same as yours, great. If it isn’t, can you do anything to get the client to change his/her mind? Apprising them of the obvious downsides to testifying is a start: their record, lack of any concrete testimony, demeanor, etc. But what if the client is oblivious to these problems or chooses to ignore them? Do you persist? Do you try a different tact?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I believe that if I am convinced it would be a terrible idea for the client to testify, I would state it in no uncertain terms. I would probably have another lawyer in my office talk to the client to provide a second opinion. I may even do a mock direct/cross of the client to demonstrate the pitfalls. Is that pushing too hard? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but others may disagree.
If, after all of that, the client still persists, well, the only thing you can do is damage control.
Getting back to the original question in this post: how hard is too hard? Put another way, how do you know when to stop?
The answer, I think, is this: when you’re convinced that the client fully understands everything that you understand. Only when you are confident that you have explained all the things that led to you to the opposite conclusion, can you let the client make the “wrong” decision.
Again this depends on the client. For some, it may take one meeting. For others, it may take 5. But this is the only way I can put into words the elusive and shifting requirement of effective representation.
You may have a different view. Tell me about it in the comments.