My fellow curmudgeon, Mark Herrmann, nails another peevish problem that makes any serious lawyer’s head explode. Well, he doesn’t call us “serious lawyers.” He calls us “compulsive nutcases.” Curmudgeons can be very mean.
Once, for example, we asked a client to deliver a list containing the names of the (few thousand) members of a class for us to use at a settlement hearing. We told the client that the list was very important; we needed it before the specified deadline, and the list had to be accurate.
The client seemed to understand those words.
Just before the deadline, the client told us that other work had gotten in the way, and the client could not provide the list on time.
And, per Mark’s story, the client proceeded to blow it the next time around, and the time after that, because the admonition that “the list had to be accurate” was understood to mean, throw something together, and don’t worry too much if its completely wrong.
What is wrong with you people? What part of getting it right, and getting it right on time, the first time, does not register with you? Some variation of Mark’s experience is a shared experience for all lawyers, making it impossible for us to do that voodoo that we could do so well if you didn’t screw it all up.
And to take it a step beyond where Mark goes, you’re going to blame the lawyer for missing the deadline, getting an adverse ruling, going in empty handed, because you failed to do your part, but we’re supposed to perform magic nonetheless.
So why is it that lawyers, at least the good ones, the “compulsive nutcases” as Mark lovingly calls us, find it critical to be timely and accurate when others don’t seem to either grasp the concept or, frankly, give a damn.
Here’s my thesis: Litigators know that every word they write will be scrutinized by a motivated opponent within a matter of weeks. That opponent will revel in your errors (if you made any). That opponent will gleefully accuse you of having lied — even if you haven’t lied. In that environment, it’s wise not to make too many mistakes; you’ll pay a price for your glitches, and you’ll pay that price almost instantly.
While all true, Mark’s thesis is somewhat unsatisfying. Lawyers aren’t the only ones whose mistakes will cost, and cost big, almost instantly. What about the neurosurgeon? Nobody wants to hear a neurosurgeon go “oopsy,” so surely she must get it.
And yet, I’ve represented my share of docs, and they’re just as frustrating as any other client.
I must have the documents by 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Sorry, been really jammed. I’ll try to get them over there tomorrow. Voicemail on Thursday, 3:42 p.m.
I know, I know, but there was an emergency. Voicemail on Friday, 7:19 p.m.
And there you are, hemming and hawing about why your client, the brilliant and innocent saver of lives, can’t get his shit together enough to put a document in your hands. But wait! We’re not done. When, a week and a half later, he finally drops off a document, except it’s not the original. And it’s got hand-written notes in crayon. And the notes say, “bullshit, what an asshole, lying scumbag.”
Why are clients (generally) so frustrating?
Because they don’t live in that environment. If a business person agrees to a crappy contract, the parties may live happily under that agreement for years; no one will notice the many errors unless the parties come to blows and, for 99 out of 100 contracts, that never happens. Who cares if the contract was no good?
This goes to one of my basic life rules, that nothing is a problem. Until it is. Lawyers are janitors, cleaning up the mess people leave behind when things go bad. When things are peachy, who needs a lawyer? Break a law and don’t get caught? This law stuff is easy. But get caught and suddenly it turns really, really hard. Go figure.
Given the pervasiveness of law in people’s lives, and the rarity with which people are actually forced to confront legal problems, mostly because things somehow manage to work out or they just don’t get caught, is it any wonder that people don’t take the law seriously? And if the law isn’t serious, then neither are lawyers. N’est-ce pas?
So I add a corollary to Mark’s thesis, that it’s not just about “compulsive nutcase” lawyers who care about getting it right, but about the fuzzy grasp of clients that what we do, that the law, doesn’t require them to give a damn about getting it right, getting it done. getting it accurate.
Clients see what we do as engaging in a never-ending stream of rhetorical nonsense, and bullshitting our way around the hole they left us is just part of the job. They don’t see that a judge told us to provide a document on Tuesday or lose the point. They don’t see that a representation of fact that turns out to be horseshoes or humpty dumpty kills our credibility with the finder of fact. They see it as some big, mushy pit where our mad lawyer skillz will work the fuzzy edges when they finally get around to doing as we asked of them. We need it now. Or whenever. Either way is fine.
As serious as we may be in seeking our clients’ cooperation and assistance in winning their case, we’re simultaneously sending the mixed message that as serious as litigation may be to their lives and fortunes, the law as a mechanism isn’t as clear and firm as their job, as the things they deem important in their world. When they say “now,” they mean it. When we say “now,” it’s just an empty word.
Of course, the same “compulsive nutcases” of which Mark speaks are the type of lawyers who, after the client fails to produce on time and accurate information, will work their butts off to find a way to compensate for the delays and inaccuracies, so that the client won’t suffer for their own screw-ups. And since we do everything in our power to overcome the client’s screw-up, the client pays no price for his carelessness and we perpetuate the sense that it’s all voodoo anyway.