“I am scared sh*tless. How do I convince myself that you will be there for me working your ass off?”
One day I had breakfast with a local top-notch veteran medical malpractice lawyer who seems to deeply care about his clients and the quality of his work. To this day, he has not found a way to save time by limiting his potential client meetings to those whose case he is willing to accept in this world where a lawyer can easily advance tens of thousands of dollars in expert witness fees for trial, wait years to recover the advanced expenses, or never recover them if the jury returns a defense verdict or if the defendant successfully appeals.
With potential criminal defendants, I ordinarily will accept any client who will pay my fee for a trial or appeal that interests me and that I know I can handle well, and is not looking for a lawyer to help him or her snitch. For me to limit providing free time for potential clients — as not every one of them I meet hires me — I ordinarily bill for initial consultations, except for ordinarily not billing for drunk driving, drug, and weapons defendants. I ordinarily limit the initial consultation to thirty minutes, and inform potential clients that I will start my next meeting promptly, not running overtime for a visitor who has arrived late. I bill cancellation fees when visitors have not let me know in advance that they are running late or will not arrive at the appointed day and hour. This works out well for me, and enables me to primarily focus on serving my existing clients as I spend some time each day talking with potential clients.
My colleague Jamison Koehler — whom I bump into sometimes in court and with whom I have broken bread with along with local fellow lawyer Miriam Seddiq — recently blogged about wanting to empty his office of a mother and criminal defendant who had met with him for an hour, only for the mother at the end to ask the question that had already been essentially answered: "Why should we hire you?" He is uncomfortable with this question, which leads to his blog article.
I posted a comment to Jamie’s blog entry, including: I generally avoid having anyone but the potential client at the initial meeting; and the question "Why should we hire you" might be motivated by fear, the same fear that one feels going under the knife not knowing whether s/he will ever awaken thereafter.
As emphasized at the Trial Lawyers College, I try to look for the gift in anything that first appears to be feces, whether it be a yelling judge, a an actually or falsely angry cop, a viciously sarcastic and heartless-seeming prosecutor, and the list goes on. The gift in this mother’s question "Why should we hire you" perhaps gave a glimpse of her deepest concerns, underlining her fears, fears about her son’s risks in his criminal case; about the financial impact of paying a lawyer; about feeling shame that her son would be caught in this mess; and whether he is guilty or not. As I said, though, the only person at my initial consultations ordinarily is only the potential client, with whom I am more comfortable than with his or her parent or significant other in hearing questions repeated again and again, interruptions of my answers again and again, and upset at the fee I set, which fortunately only happens in a small minority of such meetings of mine in the first place.
Just as I use my t’ai chi ch’uan practice to relax and sink to deflate and eliminate any stressor when in court or anywhere else, I do that with a potential client (or their kin or friend) whose question at first irritates me. When I am level-headed, I stop and ask why I am feeling irritated. When I am particularly in good form, I remember to seek a way to take the appropriate level of personal responsibility for any irritation that seems to be thrown my way.
In the end, a gift is contained in any discomfort that comes my way by giving me another opportunity to practice t’ai chi harmony, to return towards the power of zero, to engage the person I am dealing with, to deflect and deflate any irritation that I perceive, and to remember that I am connected somehow with the person I am with beyond the intellectual sense. There is no more reason for me to extricate myself from the potential client who asks an uncomfortable question than there is when appellate judges machine-gun tough and interrupting questions at me during oral argument
Under the foregoing posture, it is easier for me to smile warmly and genuinely, and answer the "Why should we hire you" question among the following lines, perhaps (with the answer always arising from the particular circumstances and being in the moment): "I want you to hire whomever you are the most comfortable with. I will be delighted to defend you, and following is some of my relevant experience and passion for helping you, and a recap — if you wish — of some of the things I am ready and able to do for you in your case, as well as the hurdles and detours I see in your case…" Or, in the rare instances when my gut tells me to run for the hills from the potential client (e.g., s/he says things showing that there is little that a hired lawyer can do to satisfy the defendant; showing that s/he will insist on immediate calls during sleeping hours, late night, and weekend hours; or repeatedly thinking s/he is complimenting me by insisting that s/he wants a Jewish lawyer (which Jamie blogged about, and which is a variation on wanting a Jewish doctor, lawyer or accountant), then I have no problem advising that I appreciate the visit (or not), but that another lawyer will need to be sought and hired.
Whether the potential client’s case is a felony or misdemeanor or blue collar or white collar; whether the potential client is well-heeled or not; and whether s/he admits to fear or not, the potential client has fears, fears that s/he might only share with the lawyer, sometimes akin to the person who seems to have his or her act together, but totally comes apart once s/he sets foot in a psychologist’s office. "Why should I hire you" often means "I am scared sh*tless. How do I convince myself that you will be there for me working your ass off every step of the way, and caring about me every step of the way?"