What Part Of “Get It Right” Confuses You?

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.

26 thoughts on “What Part Of “Get It Right” Confuses You?

  1. Karl Erich Martell

    Another possible consideration (at least in my practice) is that a lawyer often is working on a situation that’s gone awry for the client. Things that go awry are unpleasant. Many people avoid dealing with such things – even where doing so is to their detriment.

    I’ve found different clients require different amounts of hand-holding/convincing to get them to face the issues well enough that I’m able to try to take the necessary steps to address the mess on their rug. And sometimes the client is of the expectation that hiring the lawyer was the talismanic action necessary to make it all go away, so the client refuses to take those steps.

    Which reminds me of something you wrote here a few years ago, Scott – I actually copied it down and saved it, because it spoke to me:

    “This isn’t a one-way street, where lawyers are supposed to compensate with their magical powers for every blitheringly stupid thing you do . . . As much as I would like to tell you that we really do have magical powers, superhero powers, the ability to fly and shoot rays from our eyes, we’re just people who defend other people.”

    Scott H. Greenfield
    Simple Justice blog (Dec. 16, 2011)

    Happy Tuesday, folks!

  2. Mike

    … Lawyer whines that his job is hard…

    I hear the moron client stories from my amazing lawyer wife too. It’s really cool that you vent on here for everyone to read.

      1. Nigel Declan

        Wow. So I guess the “H” is both silent and invisible. You never cease to amaze.

  3. Trevor Zylstra

    The phenomenon that you’re pointing out is real, but is not limited to lawyers and their clients. Very roughly 80% of the people that I deal with in general business are slapdash and uncaring about the accuracy of what they say and when they deliver on their promises. And the tendency to blame the other party for your own mistakes is overly common as well.

    It’s SO common that it seems like the prevailing culture of business today. On the other hand, when you do find people in the 20-ish percent who work to the best of their ability to deliver accurately and on time, you keep going back to them for your needs, especially when “the best of their ability” is really good.

    1. SHG Post author

      So forget my post about this phenomenon with lawyers and their clients, and let’s talk about you and your experiences instead? Well, okay then.

  4. RAFIV

    “If the client can fuck it up, the client will fuck it up.” Sandow’s First Law.

    A law which is immutable; and words that provide a Kodak moment of lucidity and comfort in the mad dash to undo error.

  5. John Barleycorn

    Speaking of “get it right”, I know what this post is really all about.

    And frankly it wouldn’t really even be a problem (other than another annoyance to take in stride, anticipate, and plan for) if you had the proper equipment around the house to get your household chores done while decompressing from your nine-to-five chores.

    The “problem” will never go away (so stop whining) but whatever you do, don’t compound the inadequacies of your snow removal equipment to calm your inner desires of supremacy over the natural order of things when strategizing about the auxiliary benefits of gopher abatement equipment.


  6. EH

    I add yet another corollary to Mark’s thesis: it is often intentional deception. Which is to say that despite the most dire warnings and pronouncements, many clients will persist in lying to you–or, at the least, will persist in giving you only partial information, thus lying by omission.

    I think that subconsciously they just want to be able to blame any bad outcome on us, the court, the “stupid rules,” or something else. Or perhaps they think we won’t do a good job or be appropriately sympathetic, if we know what the papers really say. But I believe that is a big part of response delay, in a surprisingly large # of instances.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “lying clients” issue is not what we’re talking about here at all. This has absolutely nothing to do with clients lying, but with clients performing the handful of tasks that are needed of them.

      1. Wrongway

        a quick & probably dumb question concerning “clients performing the handful of tasks that are needed of them.” ..

        if the client is in jail due to bail issues or what have you, & can’t get what you need, who then do you rely on & how timely are they to provide the stuff you need ?

        1. SHG Post author

          Whatever the reality of the situation is, that’s what you deal with. Usually, there is family around to help where needed. But understand, there is really very little we ask of clients/family, and it’s limited to those things only they can provide. It’s really not hard stuff.

  7. Alex Stalker

    As a public defender, I get clients blowing me off all the time. I don’t know what goes through someone’s head when they think to themselves there is no reason they would need to talk to their lawyer before trial.

    I deal with it by telling them I’m not the one who goes to prison if we lose the trial. That doesn’t necessarily make them return my calls, but it does make me feel better.

  8. Ken Mackenzie

    Criminal defense clients are bound to be more unreliable than others. People who operate with integrity- who do what they say within the time they promised, and who face up to their responsibilities, are much less likely to become defendants.

    1. SHG Post author

      I wouldn’t categorize clients in this fashion at all. Good, hard-working, solid criminals can be very responsible. Many responsible civil clients are horrible. Mark Herrmann is talking exclusively about civil clients. It’s hardly this simplistic.

  9. Marc R

    Some clients nod their heads but clearly don’t understand or, if they do, they ignore what’s needed and the importance of the deadline.

    Some professional clients get what’s needed accurately and timely; generally professionals like lawyers or CPAs but some lay clients as well. Or most the time it’s their spouse or parents who ultimately do the assignments timely:

    I guess some concrete examples are: phone numbers for x, y and z; copies of your phone records from your carrier the last few months; copies of tax returns; names of attorneys for prior investigations which didn’t result in arrest, etc. Some clients are too involved by emailing or mailing documents ranging from newspaper articles about their case or similar ones, to random case law printouts that they claim once I read and understand them “there’s no way the government won’t drop charges and probably give us wrongful arrest settlement money.”

    A good client can help, a bad client can hurt, but I’d rather have a quiet or mute client than a bad client.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some professional clients get what’s needed accurately and timely; generally professionals like lawyers or CPAs but some lay clients as well.

      And many don’t. If you’re suggesting that lawyers and CPAs are better or different than anyone else when it comes to being timely and accurate, I would disagree. But then, perhaps that’s a reflection of the vastly greater experience Mark and I have in the practice of law.

  10. tim

    I’m not a lawyer but work with them all the time as part of my job so I hear the same complaints every day.

    However – from a personal perspective if am in a position where I need to engage a lawyer I get them what they need when they need it. This simply saves me a ton of time and pain down the road. Of course – this assumes the lawyer doesn’t screw things up. Which happens on occasion.

  11. Ted H.

    And since we do everything in our power to overcome the client’s screw-up, the client pays no price for his carelessness…

    Usually client screw ups mean extra time, which is money, and you get the rest.

Comments are closed.