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To take care of our clients, we must take care of ourselves as people and lawyers, as well

Sep 24, 2012 To take care of our clients, we must take care of ourselves as people and lawyers, as well

One of my criminal defense friends to whom I go first to refer co-defendants of my clients freely lists his cellphone number on his office’s outgoing voicemail. I asked him how much of a burden this becomes, and he said it is usually a small burden.

Maybe my friend is dealing with a different set of callers, cases and/or perspective. I hand out my cellnumber sparingly, automatically block my cellnumber from being read on caller ID (which sometimes leads to paranoid or stressed "who’s this?" replies, and plenty who will not pick up a blocked number, so I sometimes ask my staff to call so our office number shows on caller ID), and have an outgoing cellphone voicemail asking people to contact me at my office phone or email instead of leaving a message if I did not ask them to call my cell. Messages to my office voicebox go straight to my pager, and emails go to my iPhone, which helps eliminate the need for many people to have my cellnumber.

Of course I end up giving plenty of clients my cellnumber, to cut past phone tag, seeing that I am in court more than I am in my office during regular business hours. Plenty of people I call back intentionally keep their cellphone voiceboxes full, wanting instead to deal with responding to caller ID and texts; it is completely different from how I like to use my cellphone, but I need to be aware of how clients and potential clients are using theirs.

Incoming cell calls to me are a real example of the challenges that trial lawyers have in keeping a positive balance in their work and private lives and in maintaining sensible boundaries with clients while still empathizing and caring about them, and being friendly with them as a default.

In our cellphone culture of instant access, it seems that callers in general are quicker to start talking without asking if they are interrupting anything or if I have time for a lengthy talk, or maybe it is a sense of relief of finally reaching me after my unavailability while in court, and not wanting to lose a chance to talk about what has been on the caller’s mind. From a practical standpoint, if I gave everyone my cellnumber, I would have a real challenge dialing outgoing calls on my cellphone, for instance, because that is thwarted when an incoming call is in the process. Incoming cell calls interrupt my handling such smartphone activities as calendaring, legal research and emailing. Many incoming calls are about matters my staff is there to handle, including scheduling meetings, getting documents to clients, coordinating with witnesses, and providing directions and other logistical information to courthouses. I want to give people and my driving my undivided attention; if I gave everyone my cellnumber, doing so would be a real challenge.

Real estate agents are in a profession that is probably particularly difficult for working out boundaries with phone and client times, with all the interest of buyers and sellers to handle matters on the weekends and after hours.

In this challenging economy, perhaps many lawyers are all the more ready to talk with potential clients at the drop of a dime, even if during the weekend, in the late evening, or even during sleeping hours. I have seen some potential clients — a few small handfuls — tell me that they had already hired another lawyer when I call them back after Saturday (I rarely handle calls on Saturdays) or the next morning after they call on a late evening. I maintain a good work-personal life balance with phone calls nonetheless. I rarely meet potential clients on the weekends or past 7:00 p.m. at night (making exceptions for jail visits, which often are not easy to make around my schedule during regular business hours). By doing so, I am healthier physically (including getting enough rest time for exercise and proper diet), mentally, intellectually and spiritually, and my family life is happier and more fulfilling that way.

When I am happier and more fulfilled as a person, I am more effective for my clients. Similarly, when a potential client asks me to reduce my quoted fee, I explain that I charge a fee that makes me and my staff battle-ready, and nothing less. If it turns out at the conclusion of my client’s case that in retrospect a lower fee would have made sense — for instance if the case gets dismissed or inactivated with much less time needed to devote for the case than I originally expected — I am delighted to provide a partial discount when that is justified.

I doubt that I lose many clients by not being available on the phone and in person 24-7, and by not quoting fees over the phone (other than stating whether and how much I will bill for a consultation fee or jail visit (I always bill for jail visits)). People who hire me do not seem to place a high value on hiring a lawyer who has that type of nearly limitless availability, just as few people if anyone would hire a surgeon on that basis. We want professionals who are competent and in good health to take on their clients’ battles.

With all the foregoing being said, my law practice — and probably the practice of any self-employed criminal defense lawyer with a full number of clients –involves long hours, including for regular case and client preparation, jury trials, appeals, cases with numerous witnesses to arrange and prepare, and the list goes on. I not only practice law, but I also administer my law firm and spend time with people considering my services. I hire staff to help serve my clients well and for me to maintain a healthy work-life balance.  

As my own boss, and as a solo practitioner with no law partners getting on my back when I decline a new potential client (usually due to snitch work (which I do not offer assistance on), inability to pay my fee (and my declining payment plans) or too much complaining about my fee, and the potential client’s insistence on too much involvement in their case by family members (or their inability to resist too much family member interference)), I can make those long hours more pleasant by scheduling my after-hours time as I see fit, around time with my family and amusements beyond serving my clients. The  stories are legion — and too often true — of the high-earning corporate law firm associate who gets downtick reviews for not being seen enough working after hours and weekends at the law firm and who get slapped with a burdensome weekend assignment when on the way out the door at the end of a Friday, even though people can work more efficiently by being given assignments in advance with flexibility for when and where they work on the assignments as long as they meet deadlines. Granted, law firm partners might not know how to judge one’s productivity if not seen after hours at the office, might sometimes need to have meetings after hours with a work team, and might not be organized enough to hand out assignments more in advance and sometimes have just learned of a deadline themselves. However, if law firms want to attract and retain the best and the most loyal attorneys and staff, they must support a sensible work life balance without sacrificing quality service to clients.

In his great and hundreds-pages-long Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about the many law firms and law schools that have promoted and made available mindfulness and meditation programs to help reach and achieve a powerful balance in life, rather than to feel stranded, treading water, and on the road to burnout, depression, stress, self-abuse (and abuse of others) and alcohol and substance abuse. Mindfulness and taijiquan practice are indispensible for me in that regard.

A few years ago, a criminal defense lawyer whom I admired and appreciated deeply — starting with his great ability and caring calmness, and his treating me as no less than he when I was first starting in criminal defense — shot himself dead. Some of those who knew him very well said they saw no warning signs. Who knows if his suicide had anything to do with the challenges of his law practice? We nevertheless hear of even the most together-seeming people going into crisis, with the results sometimes being as extreme as suicide. Most people have a lot of heavy lifting to do in life, and can use a hand from others. Too many are too ashamed or uncomfortable to ask for a helping hand, too many are too hesitant to offer one or to know when a helping hand is needed, and too many do not want the discomfort of receiving anger or rejection (or the opposite problem of the other person putting too many unappreciated time demands on the helper) when offering a helping hand.

Criminal defense clients are clearly in the need of a helping hand, and criminal defense is not for the faint of heart. I am deeply honored to do so. I am very grateful that I have a network of lawyers, friends and family members to whom I can turn to discuss some of the bigger challenges and curveballs that I deal with. Most importantly and fundamentally, I must listen to myself about the best way to handle such challenges.

I deeply thank my clients who provide me an opportunity to fight alongside them and on their behalf, and am grateful that the vast majority of them understand and support that I make myself heavily available to them in commitment, time and caring, without my needing to talk with them at a moment’s notice on weekends and sleeping hours.

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