Tonight I have the privilege of presenting at GW University, where I get to share my thoughts on what it is like to practice law in the 21st century. I have put a lot of thought into the message I want to convey– because I know it is a grim market out there, and yet I like to be the messenger of hope.
Remaining an optimist after 15 years as a divorce attorney may seem odd, but honestly, it is all in how you view things. I don’t see myself as someone that tears families apart. In reality, the damage has already been done way before anyone comes to see me, so it is all about damage control as I work to restructure the family’s ties. All that being said, there are 5 things I think clients should be cognizant of in order to preserve a healthy attorney-client relationship:
1. Babysitting is expensive. I liked babysitting when I was a teenager, but that is not the best use of someone’s resources at my current rates these days. I get paid to put out fires– major ones every day. So, when you get assignments and deadlines from me or the court, do your best to stick to them without requiring a lot of hand-holding.
2. Listen carefully. You are in crisis mode, which means you are not thinking clearly. I’m doing my best to help you out of this legal mess. But, if you are not going to follow my advice, why are you paying me? If you are not going to heed my warnings, then what is the point of asking me my opinion?
3. No pro bono requests please. Everyone has a sad story, but resources are limited. Meanwhile, we all have our designated charities, where we want to commit our time and money. Giving away thousands of dollars to a complete stranger is not going to happen. As a result, if government and non-profit lawyers cannot handle the case, then you either need to represent yourself or pay someone a reasonalbe rate to help you. I don’t know anyone that works for free, and I’m not sure why people think it is ok to ask for an attorney to take their case pro bono.
4. Discipline Your Emotions. Emotions have no place in the practice of law. We are trained to be objective, and create clean contracts– we want as little emotion as possible to cloud your judgment when making major decisions. We are not meant to be used as emotional punching bags, and outbursts are just not appropriate. Therapists process emotions; we process legal settlements.
5. Respect boundaries. Just because I have a cellphone, doesn’t mean you should feel free to use it all the time, 24/7. We have families and need down time, just like all other normal human beings. When we go off the clock, the only true emergencies require calling 911.
6. Collections isn’t fun. Lawyers are not bankers, we can’t lend clients money. Most of us go to law school to help people, not to be in the position of acting as bill collectors. Put in this position will be an unpleasant experience for everyone. Think about it- I don’t know anyone that shows up for work without getting paid. Everywhere else, if someone wants a product or project completed or they need a service done, they know they have to pay for the service requested. Without payment you won’t get service- it really is that simple.
I promise that tonight’s presentation is quite positive– but I would not be doing my job if I did not warn students about some of the challenges they will face as lawyers. Meanwhile, I think it might be helpful for some lay people out there to hear things from the lawyer’s perspective. A long time ago I was taught that understanding is the enemy of conflict, and I have come a long way in the last 15 years to do my very best to understand the challenges my clients are facing when they come to me. That said, it might be equally as beneficial for clients to see things from our perspective as stated above.
In the end, we are on the same team– but to get to the final goal, lawyers and clients have to work together to prevent their respective emotional and financial pressures from derailing the legal process that binds them.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.