A handwritten letter from a person whose name was completely unfamiliar arrived at the office from an upstate New York correctional facility. It read:
Dear Mr. Greenfield,
I need a lawyer to handle my appeal. An associate suggested you. Please let me know what type of criminal law you practice, trials or appeals. Also, what is your experience? What is your won-lost record?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Letters from people in prison in need of a lawyer are nothing new. I’ve been getting them for more than 30 years. But this letter was different. Usually, they are lengthy tomes, providing every detail a potential client wants a lawyer to know. If nothing else, they are cathartic, sending the most personal information to lawyers they don’t know.
I cringe when I get one, as they reveal far too much and they are, well, largely incomprehensible. Their authors aren’t always competent writers. But this letter was brief and to the point. It gave up nothing about its writer. The content of this letter seemed to come straight off the “how to find a lawyer” link from websites written by people who have the least competency to opine.
Thank you for your letter. I note that you neglect to mention what crime you were convicted of, the name of your “associate” who gave you my name, or whether you have the ability to retain counsel for your appeal.
I’ve been practicing criminal law for quite a while now. In fact, I’ve done trials and appeals for more than three decades, and I’ve done a lot of them over that time. Because of this, I tend to decide which cases I want to take, whether because the case interests me or because I want to work with the client. I also decide what cases I don’t care to take, for the same reasons. Your letter fails to provide anything to suggest that I would be interested in working with you or on your case.
Your letter asks some questions that have become popular over the last few years. People who don’t know better think they are good questions to ask of a lawyer. They sound as if they should be to the unsophisticated client. But they really aren’t good questions. This is why:
You ask if I’m experienced. If I was to tell you I am, because I want you to retain me, you wouldn’t know whether that was true or not. I could tell you I’ve done a thousand cases just like yours and you would never know. To the extent the question is intended to distinguish the competent and experienced lawyer from the others, the lawyer you are most likely to entice with that question is not merely lacking in competence and experience, but honesty.
As for my won/lost record, I could tell you that I’ve won 87.5% of my cases. Pretty impressive, right? But is it true? You wouldn’t know. And even if it was true, were those cases relevant to yours at all? You wouldn’t know. Few things could be less meaningful to you, and yet you think that question is important enough to you to ask.
The truth is, I don’t keep track of my won/lost record and have no clue, because there is nothing less relevant to a client’s situation than what happened in another person’s case. I’ve had great wins and terrible losses, but none of them matters to you. Each case is unique, and the outcome in other cases means nothing as far as the outcome in yours. When you ask such a question, it tells me that you are an unsophisticated client. I prefer not to work with unsophisticated clients.
I suspect that there will be other lawyers who will want your business, regardless of what you have been convicted of or how difficult a client you turn out to be. They will respond to your questions, even though your questions are naïve and foolish, because they don’t care about anything other than getting the work and whatever money you may have to pay them.
Are those the lawyers you hope to have represent you? I suspect not, but that’s the best you can hope for when you send out such a letter. It doesn’t make them bad lawyers, but rather lawyers who are sufficiently desperate for money that they will bite at any opportunity. Even yours.
Whether or not this will make for a good relationship is unknown, but it has great potential for problems. Yet, that will be the best response a letter like yours can achieve. What it will not achieve is getting a lawyer like me to take an interest in you or your case.
If you really got my name from an “associate,” an odd choice of words given your circumstances, then you should already know the answers to your questions. But since people are being told to ask questions such as yours before retaining a lawyer, you probably thought it best to ask these questions first, even though you had a far better and more trustworthy source of information about my reputation at hand. You would have done well to rely on earned reputation rather than foolish questions passed around on the internet.
I wish you the best of luck in your search for a lawyer, your appeal and for the holiday season. I am not the right lawyer for you.
Very truly yours,
Perhaps Joe will turn out to have a very interesting case, be a wonderful human being and be flush with funds to pay for his legal representation. I will never know. If you end up with Joe’s case, let me know how it works out. If it goes well, this is my holiday present to you. For your sake and Joe’s, I wish the best to both of you.