Commitment to Clients

Most clients do not know what to expect in their relationship with their attorney. Certainly, it varies by the attorney. Too many people in every walk of life do not come to work with a true passion for what they do. To me, law school seemed to be a place where the common theme was “do things the way they have always been done”,  ambition, and competition. That was a difficult time for me. (Not really since I was obliviously happy with my new wife and new baby, but…)  I was not part of the groups, particularly fraternities, who had graduated from WVU. I was married, and we were “poor as church mice”. I will address the travails of law school some other time; suffice it to say, I “survived” and accomplished just enough my third (senior) year to begin to build some confidence.

Two and one half years in the U.S.A.F. with an alcoholic boss meant I worked without a mentor, so everything was “the hard way”. The last year and a half my boss entrusted me with plenty of responsibility. The first boss missed LOTS of work, so I attended most of his meetings my last year before he moved on. Jim Ingram, my last boss, made sure I left the service with the Air Force Commendation Medal and a reasonable level of competency. We correspond to this day. And, I was fortunate enough to be the military sponsor, and mentor, to Ray Starling, now Maj. Gen. H. Ray Starling, who retired as the highest ranking lawyer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. There were two fellows dedicated to their profession, and their country.

When I came to work with the Rexroads, David and Lynne, in Buckhannon, I did not lack in confidence. I asked David to consider paying me a percentage of my gross earnings, so I made them some money even during my first year with them.

Many years later, I tried the same thing when I hired three newly graduated law students. They preferred to take their salaries, and work just eight hours a day, barely. They cost me at least $150,000 and moved on to the first “gov’t jobs” they could find. I never understood how three people could so lack ambition and energy but somehow make it through law school.

That confirmed what I already believed, that passion, brains, and innovation are what make a good attorney, and passion and innovation probably will let you outdo people who are “smarter” than you are. An ability to score a good grade in a class, by itself, does not guarantee that student will be a good lawyer. I seem to be able to excel at what I like and ignore what I do not. I guess that is why I am writing this blog.

So, what does that have to do with commitment to clients? Only that even getting to a point where you have the confidence to work with and guide clients is not easy. Wouldn’t you know it, my first client Cruz’s Mother ask me how many cases I had tried. “Not many.” I answered. “How many” she persisted, “Very few.” My theory was – zero is “very few”. Cruz was of Puerto Rican descent, and he erred by selling cocaine to a few friends. He insisted that he “made no profit”, but that didn’t help him very much, and he was convicted. Still, I liked the guy; even read a 300 page book about Puerto Rico and its culture to try to understand him. And, I tried hard to help him come to grips and understand his problem. I hope I did him some good. That was 5000 clients ago.

I now do criminal work only as it touches directly to my domestic practice. My mindset was not consistent with the criminal defense lawyers who seem not to care whether their clients are guilty, and who fight hard to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case, even when they know it is a valid one.

Most of my clients are facing a serious situation and need me to help them get through it, and they need a “fresh start”. The “problem” can be serious personal injuries, an abusive or unfaithful spouse, a custody dispute, argument over a loved one’s will, or an emotional dispute with a neighbor over a right of way or boundary line. A good lawyer empowers his client, settles the case if possible, and tries it competently if not.

The wife of one of my clients accused him of “Drinking at least two cases of beer a day and watching porn on the Internet six hours a day.” His response, “That’s a damnable lie!  It’s no more than a case, and three hours!” Ouch! That fellow needed my help.

A loyal attorney does NOT try to explain away or cover up such behavior. But, an “average” lawyer almost always does. An addicted person cannot be trusted to be sole care provider for young children. So, also, a person with severe anger issues, drug problems, or history of criminal behavior, needs to be guided to the right kind of professional help. If they won’t get it, the “parenting plan” needs to protect their children while trying to maximise the client’s rights. Visits at a supervised visitation center, the home of his parents, or unsupervised only after a period of good behavior, may the best we can do for them. (Recent tragic news shows that sometimes none of these tools can protect the child. 2-09-2012, J.B.H.)

I often assign reading to my family law clients. “The Top Ten Stupid Things Women (or Men) Do To Mess Up Their Lives” by Dr. Laura Schlesinger are my favorites. Also “In The Middle” by Garrity

Nearly half of the time, my clients’ behavior is exemplary, and they do just what I want them to. Their cases often do well, but sometimes not, depending on how bad the behavior of the other side. When my opponent simply ignores their client’s problem or excuses or hides it, that is bad too, and not good lawyering. In those cases, I must be prepared to try the case and let my client’s testimony and witnesses be heard.

The key is putting together a good game plan, following the plan, and trying to develop some rapport and trust with the other side. Lawyers, having been trained to be “adversaries”, are often terrible at this, so the daily life of a small town trial lawyer is a stressful one.

A lawyer should not get too close to the client. A “professional distance” is essential. And, one must be able to sleep when he or she gets home. Having a life at home, stability, good health, a fitness and nutrition plan, and personal interests is ideal. I am blessed with these things, which help me get up and “go at it” each day.

A lawyer who represents individuals needs to love and understand the “human comedy”. It helps to read broadly and to have a deep reservoir of experience. With nearly 3000 family law cases and hundred of personal injury and civil matters, I have that now. Clients’ interests must be placed ahead of the attorney, but not so that she/he cannot make a good living, pay and train good staff, and be well equipped.

Finally, many lawyers think it is their job to follow their client’s instructions. I know that the client has probably never been in this situation before, so I see the client’s responsibility is to tell me the truth and follow my advice. If I understand that client’s values, or perhaps the Court’s, I give excellent advice. Usually, if the client ignores it, they regret it.

My advice to someone seeking a lawyer is to find one who has a reputation for hard work, who understands technology, understands people, and gets up each morning intending to do good in the world. Study their web pages, ask around, talk with them before committing to hire them. And good luck!

This post was written by Burton Hunter

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