In the 1969 movie, True Grit, young heroine Mattie Ross confronts a horse trader by the name of Colonel Stonehill. When she protests that Col. Stonehill pay her for her father’s stolen horse, the following colloquy occurs:
Col. Stonehill: Oh, well, that’s all very interesting. The ponies are yours, take them. Your father’s horse was stolen by a murderous criminal. I had provided reasonable protection for the creature as per our implicit agreement. My watchman had his teeth knocked out and can take only soup.
Mattie Ross: Then I will take it to law.
Col. Stonehill: You have no case!
Mattie Ross: Lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle, Arkansas may think otherwise, as might a jury, petitioned by a widow and three small children.
Mattie Ross’s invocation of the name of her attorney, Lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle, Arkansas, is the standard every attorney should strive to achieve in the relationship with their client. It is implicit in her threat of bringing the famous Lawyer Daggett into the fray to solve her problem with Col. Stonehill that she has complete trust in his judgment and ability. So much so that she is sure of the outcome of the dispute.
Undoubtedly this trust on Mattie’s part was built on her observation of the famous lawyer and his handling of her father’s and other’s business. But it is clear that her participation in those matters imparted to her the same trust held by her father and others in Lawyer Daggett’s community.
The key word is TRUST. A client must not only think, but believe, and believe unequivocally, that their lawyer is trustworthy and will act, to the fullest extent of the law and ethics, in accordance with the trust bestowed.
Betray that trust, even only once and even only slightly and the attorney-client bond is irretrievably broken.
It’s without doubt that not only must the client trust the lawyer, but the lawyer must be able to trust the client to reveal all the facts, withhold nothing, and admit mistakes and foibles. All so that the attorney can, to the extent possible, deal with and minimize those not-so-favorable facts of a client’s case in order to present the best case possible for the client and to represent the client, not only with “zeal,” but with an earnest “zeal” that imparts to the lawyer the conviction that he is acting not only in the best interests of his client but also in the best interests of justice.
KEEPING THE CLIENT INFORMED
Too many lawyers, in this writer’s opinion, (and he is guilty of it himself) fail to keep the client informed. Having once or twice had to hire lawyers myself, I understand a client’s feeling of “what is my lawyer doing for me?” and “what is my lawyer doing at all”? “Why is this taking so long?”
It is almost a character fault of lawyers not to keep their clients informed of everything that is going on in their case, even if nothing is going on at the moment. Many lawyers would say, “I’m not sending all this paperwork to the client—they wouldn’t understand it any way and all they’ll do is call me to explain it.”
In this writer’s opinion, lawyers many times underestimate the intelligence of their clients – and their ability to understand the legal papers filed in their cases.
Even if it is a mundane brief on a mundane point of law in something as alien to a client as a “motion for summary judgment” or a “motion in limine to exclude certain evidence,” the client should be informed of what is going on. In my practice, especially with the availability of email and scanners, I scan and email EVERY document in a case to a client (even letters, faxes and emails between the lawyers) or fax or mail the documents to them.
This practice serves two purposes: first, it lets the client know that there is, in fact, something going on in their case and you are working on it and, secondly, that you, as their attorney, have nothing to hide and want them to know everything that is happening. Even if nothing is happening in a client’s case, which is often true, (such as awaiting answers to discovery or a court’s ruling on a motion), it is wise to let the client know you, as well as they, are just waiting and you cannot proceed until you have the information you need or the ruling from the court.
TALKING TO THE CLIENT
Probably one of the most common complaints of clients is that they can’t speak to their attorney. They call, they get a secretary, they are told you are unavailable and they get your voice-mail. Then days go by before they are called back or their voice-mail is never answered and they are put to the trouble of calling again, and getting the same answer and voice-mail again, unless they get lucky and actually get a chance to talk to you.
Lawyers are busy. Everyone is busy. But to maintain that attorney-client relationship, one of trust and one in which the client knows you haven’t forgotten about them, you must talk to them. Of course, this can be over-done, and some clients will call constantly with unimportant details about something perhaps not even related to the case you’re handling.
The client that simply calls too much must be dealt with in as polite and courteous manner as possible and must understand that he or she is not (hopefully) the only client you have; that you have other things you must deal with and their matter will be dealt with in due course.
Of course, those clients on an hourly billing quickly learn that calling their attorney too much about mundane things can quickly run up a legal bill and, most assuredly, they will be soon only calling with important matters.
PREPARING THE CLIENT AND AVOIDING or MINIMIZING CONFLICT / LITIGATION STRESS
If you are negotiating for a client, whether it be a contract, a divorce, a personal injury claim, a wrongful death claim or other matter to be litigated, or preparing for trial, the only way to minimize the conflict or litigation stress is to personally meet with and thoroughly prepare the client.
The client must be informed on how to dress, what his or her emotional state should be during the negotiation or litigation process, and what they can or cannot say, if they say anything at all. Some would call this “holding the client’s hand.” And perhaps that is what it is. After all, you, the attorney, are the expert and you have the experience– having dealt with these situations many, many times.
You know exactly how you want your client to appear and act for the best outcome. So it is up to you to rehearse the client, reassure them and cause their fears and apprehensions to subside. They should know that you are in charge and will handle every exigency and matter, since they’ve placed their trust in you, in their best interests.
AT THE END OF THE DAY…..
When the matter is concluded for your client, either by a successful negotiation, successful settlement, or successful verdict (hopefully) and you meet for the last time on the case, there is no better feeling for a lawyer than his/her client is fully confident that their lawyer has done everything possible for them, and has exerted their best efforts for them. If a client understands this, even if the outcome is less than optimal (that is, it didn’t go entirely their way) they will leave your office perhaps invoking your name, as Mattie Ross did of J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle County, Arkansas.
P.S., to anyone seeking a good attorney in Mississippi:
If you don’t find the above to be true of your lawyer, maybe you need a different one. EXPERIENCE MAKES A DIFFERENCE.