Love You Like A Rock

The holiday season brings back memories of one of my more enduring experiences with a client many years ago who sent me a very unpleasant letter.  He accused me of everything from incompetence to misanthropy because I failed to visit him in the slammer between Thanksgiving and Christmas.


I thought you loved me like your own son, and yet you didn’t even bother to visit me.


I’ve had many clients with whom relationships have grown.  We’ve become friends, outside of my relationship as lawyer.  But when I wore my lawyer hat, I was their lawyer. All the way.

There are some lawyers who drip with emotion over their clients, whether expressing some odd adoration or sharing in the melodrama of their misery.  They claim an emotional connection more appropriate for lovers than lawyers.  Sometimes, it’s as if they do love them like the defendant is their own son.

This is a disservice.  This is a mistake.  While the client may believe that’s what he wants of you, and may, at least during the course of representation, deeply appreciate the bond that develops, you do not serve him well by becoming his father or mother. 

I responded to my client’s letter by telling him that I am not his father. I am his lawyer. I do not love him, but I represent him. I will not cry regardless of the outcome, but I will do everything within the bounds of the law to achieve the outcome he wants. And because I am not his father, because I do not love him, because I will not cry over him, my eyes will remain clear to see my duty, my responsibility, my opportunity, unclouded by emotion or tears.

As for the visit, I go to jail to meet with a client when there is a reason for me to do so as his lawyer.  I expect his family to go regularly, frequently, to hold his hand and to keep him abreast of things that interest him, but my job is not babysitter or hand-holder.  I include in my retainers a provision that if a client wants me to visit him in jail when there is no need for a visit for the purpose of my representation, there will be an additional fee.  Rarely does any client want to pay the additional fee, and so rarely do they ask for an extra visit.

Is this cold?  Is this heartless?  Well, yes, to some extent it is.  It’s also what is demanded of us as lawyers.  Cold, heartless representation.  Warm and fuzzy is better provided by a puppy, but our work has very real consequences.  When our decisions, our will to act, is guided by emotional concerns rather than cold, heartless reason, we lose our detachment and allow our feelings to influence our choices.  That’s self-indulgent. 

Clients do not come to us because they want to retain a new best friend.  That they don’t understand this isn’t the point; for the most part, if they thought a bit harder, they wouldn’t need us at all.  But they do because they are in trouble, desperate straits, and we are the unpleasant profession to which they turn to save their sorry butts. 

I remember working a case years ago with David Lewis, a big bear of a guy with great wit and a winning smile.  The defendant asked David to win the case for him.  David bared his teeth, and went from teddy to polar, looking remarkably unattractive and inordinately threatening.  He told the client, “I will win your case, but for me, not you. I’ll win because that’s what I want to do for my reputation, because I have the need to win.  I would win it whether you were the defendant or anybody else. I’m not your friend. I’m your lawyer.”

It’s not that it would kill you (or me) to pay a visit to the jail to see a detained client during the holiday season. If you have the time, it would be quite a thoughtful thing to do.  There is nothing about serving your clients that preclude being civil and accommodating, engaging in the normal courtesies that humans typically extend to each other.  But this isn’t to confuse what our obligation is toward our clients, to be capable of turning cold and heartless when our duty demands it. 

Now that Black Friday is behind us, and as we move forward toward Christmas, the season of goodwill toward men (and women, and dogs, and whatever), your clients will wonder whether you love them enough, whether they are like a son (or daughter, or pet, or whatever) to you. And you will want to show them you do. We’re still human, and of the particular subset inclined to defend human beings accused of crimes.  We’re wired to care or we couldn’t do this job.

And in this age of desperation, where getting the business drives us more than winning the cases, appealing to the things that make client’s love us in return seems such a natural way to run our practices.  Isn’t the magic bullet that people do business with people they like, and so making them like us is the overarching concern for lawyers who want to earn enough to put sweet gifts under the tree for their actual children?

There are many lawyers who are exceptionally nice, likeable and caring toward their clients.  There are lawyers who will do everything within their power to represent their clients zealously, with cold, heartless detachment.  There are very, very few who can claim both attributes. There are no lawyers who love their clients and can still do their job well. 

After you win the case, you can love them all you want. Until you win their case, you are their lawyer, first and last.  Don’t let the season cloud your eyes as to why they come to you or what they truly need of you. Give them the gift of excellent representation.  Others can give them love.

6 comments on “Love You Like A Rock

  1. Kathleen Casey

    I don’t love them like a mother and don’t love their mothers either. “Dear Client in Jail (or wherever): The reason why I don’t take calls from your mother is because I represent you, not her. This is my rule as we agreed in paragraph whatever of our retainer agreement. It is my rule because it prevents misunderstanding or hectoring or both and that way it assists me in assisting you. VTY…”

  2. Felicia Herman

    I wish that Joel’s attorney had remembered this. He acted like a hurt lover rather than as a lawyer.

  3. SHG

    I remember that well. It’s an excellent example of why the very feelings that most clients think they want most in their lawyer can be so destructive to the job they exist to do.  It was a terrible shame.

  4. Alex Bunin

    I treat clients with friendship for very practical reasons. The client who appreciates my extra attention tends to trust me when it is time to make difficult decisions about their future. David Lewis is a fine lawyer, and he may have meant what he said, but I find that among the better lawyers some of that talk is bravado, and I suspect you are also a softer touch than your post implies. Especially, if only one such letter stands out in your memory.

  5. SHG

    It’s not that I can’t be a “soft touch” (as in my demeanor being friendly enough) under ordinary circumstances, but I never want to lose the ability to make dispassionate and detached decisions or tell hard, unpleasant and, often, terrible truths. If being “friendly” interferes with my doing something I need to do to save their lives, then friendly stops. 

    David looks damn ugly when he needs to. I try, but can’t come get anywhere near as ugly as David.

  6. FERGUS O'ROURKE

    “…our obligation … toward our clients, [is] to be capable of turning cold and heartless when our duty demands it”

    This is, I think, possibly the crux of the Slackoisie problem: they just don’t “get” that such is, arguably, *the* distinctive feature of the lawyer’s role.

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