Alright, so let’s face the hard truth that in an over-saturated legal market there are plenty of lawyers out there who are willing to take on any case. Let’s go even further and say that there are lawyers out there who are breaking the cardinal rules set at our monthly ritualistic sacrifice of an alleged tortfeasor (afterwards we have cocktails and network) by charging well under the basement-fees for our regions. Let’s just accept, in general, that to some extent a lawyer who has succeeded in getting a client on the hook by getting them in the door still needs to reel that client in and get them to sign the engagement letter.
Have you bought a car recently? I sold those suckers for a bit, so I know a little bit about how it works. When you bought the car did you notice the salesman had a picture of a kid on his desk? Not necessarily his kid, but a kid, and you sure as hell assumed it was his kid, right? How about the Bible sitting on the corner of the desk? Everytime you had a story or comment about something that happened to you or a concern, the salesman had a story related to it about how he knows exactly what you mean because he’d been through the same thing, or knew someone who had. You know that shit was all meant to make you feel close to him so he could stick your ass in the seat of a new-to-you, perfectly-functional-except-for-the-A/C 1997 Toyota Camry with low, low mileage of only 165,000 miles (they just don’t make engines that last that long anymore, I tell you what). It’s a scheme, a way to ingratiate yourself to the buyer to make them feel a bond with you.
Lawyers are guilty of the same thing.
I can’t tell you how many consults I sat in on where the Big Boss would say things like “Oh, you live at X? I’m near there, hey, what’s the way you use to get to Y place?” and then go off on a tirade about the best backroads, butcher to buy sausage from, etc. I do it, too. We all do it, it’s how we set ourselves apart because, at the end of the day, the product a lawyer is selling is not just their expertise and experience, but themselves.
This can go horribly awry, especially for young lawyers who have grown up in the social media era. No, this isn’t a post about sharing too much on social media, take a moment and get your Twitters unbunched you whippersnappers. This is a post about sharing too damn much in person.
Say you have a client who comes in for a DUI. This client is remorseful, heartbroken, embarrassed, and overall just miserable at the fact they have come to this point in life. You reassure them, comfort them, go through all of the legal options, but at the end of the day you know they have a plethora of other options when it comes to attorneys. You know those other attorneys may charge similar fees, or slightly more, and have more experience. You need this client to justify your continued existence at your office, so you need to set yourself apart.
“My life is ruined,” the client moans.
“No it isn’t,” you reassure the client, “Why, I got a DUI my senior year of college and look how I turned out!”
There! You’ve connected with the client! They feel something about you, and now you’ve set yourself apart from the other attorneys out there! Of course, you’ve set yourself apart because now you’re the lawyer who was stupid enough to get a DUI to them. I guarantee you, they may not remember three-quarters of what you said during the consult, but they are going to remember the fact that you are the relatively young attorney who had an alcohol problem and has been arrested for driving drunk.
Or for smoking “a little pot.”
Or for “getting in that fight.”
Or for any of a variety of dumb ass things that you admit to doing with a client. Whatever story you tell to a client to try to empathize with them, trust me, it will become the manner in which they know you. That’s not a good thing, because frankly we’re supposed to be above that.
Lawyers are not supposed to be buddies, friends, pals, bros, etc. We are meant to be counselors and advisors, and at times we have an ethical and moral duty to tell our clients hard truths. We are the ones responsible for making a client see the light in a heated settlement, and the ones responsible for talking them off the cliff of barely-founded litigation when they insist to file. We are, not to sound like an elitist prick, supposed to be better than our clients when it comes to legal matters, and not on their level. In short, you don’t want your lawyer you to be your best friend, you want him or her to be your advocate. In order to do that, we have to maintain some separation between us and our clients. A professional wall, so to speak, such that clients will respect you as a counselor instead of treating you like a friend they can ignore.
It’s unfair to an extent, but it’s true. It’s even more unfair when you’re relating something that happened far in the past. The person you were then, for example, may not be the competent professional you are now. However, the fact remains that as attorneys we have to be seen as always being competent and responsible because so damn much of our job is based on the clients being able to have faith that we know better than them. Anything that chips away at that image can hurt you even if you secure the representation, because it puts holes in that wall between friend and advocate.
Further, and importantly for young attorneys, oversharing about your personal problems simply isn’t professional in the eyes of many of our clients. A client is not looking for someone who can commiserate with their problems, they are looking for someone who can fix them. If you admit to getting trashed in Vegas and spending a couple days in county lock-up in a meeting with someone who hasn’t even retained you, they’ll question how…forthcoming…you’re going to be with opposing counsel. They’ll worry if you’re responsible enough to show up in court on time. They’ll think about why you would feel the need to tell a client something like this. When you’re young, you already have a disadvantage as many clients don’t want an eager young attorney in the first place; most clients want the battle-hardened veteran in the thousand dollar suit.
Keeping that in mind, how comfortable would you feel knowing that your attorney is subject to making the same dumb-ass decisions you made? Would the thought of your attorney having an unrestrained alcohol problem make you feel like he was “one of the guys” and therefore worthy of your money, or would it make you feel like he’s one shot away from getting you thrown in jail? How much faith would you have in an attorney who has admitted that they aren’t capable of keeping themselves out of trouble in the past?
More than either of those, though, is even if your client hires you, they’re going to talk about you to other people. Let me ask, which endorsement would sound better:
“My attorney told me I could get probation and then managed to get my record cleared at the end of it”
“My attorney is fuckin’ awesome. Guy once off-roaded through a cornfield while high on meth and got a gang sign tattooed on his back in the county lock-up. The guy is WOKE AF!”
Because clients will repeat what they perceive to be the most important thing about you, and generally that’s going to be the most memorable thing about you. It may be your fees, it may by your stellar representation, or it could be the story about how you got a PI charge by running naked through the streets of your college town with a midget named Lawrence while blacked out. You, as the attorney, have to craft the image, and in doing so be aware that the image you present to a potential client is the image they will use to present you to other people. What reputation do you want?
I get it, I really do. The personal “Hey man, we’ve all been there” thing is a great selling point. And you can still use it…just not with yourself. “It happens to the best of people;” “I’ve represented plenty of respectable people with problems like this;” “Good people do bad things sometimes, I completely understand that.” All of those are great ways to show empathy without over-sharing about your personal life. All of those, done properly, preserve your representation, your professionalism, and your appropriate distance from your client.
Just remember, being a lawyer is a profession. Your conference room isn’t your Facebook profile, and clients don’t need to know about your personal life. Your job is to solve their issues, not talk about yours.