Many Lawyers have a challenging job. Except for those Lawyers who represent celebrities and athletes as an Agent, or who practice Patent and Trademark law, or other, more “academic” pursuits, Lawyers, like me, who go to Court for people generally get involved in their Client’s lives at a time of crisis, or stress. I’ve often said that my Practice and being a Funeral Director has something in common: Nobody comes in “on a roll.”
I limit my Practice to 4 things: Criminal, DUI, Driver’s License Restoration and Bankruptcy cases. When you think about it, pretty much anyone coming to see me is coming to have something made better. Of course, I need to make a living, and earning a salary is a part of anyone’s job satisfaction, but all the money in the world won’t improve the quality of your life if you hate what you do. To me, job satisfaction comes from knowing that I have actually helped better my Client’s situation.
In that regard, I could never stand being involved in a Divorce case. I’ve never so much as handled one, and to me, it seems that too many people walk away from that situation even more unhappy than when they started. In my Criminal Practice, for example, I at least know that no matter bad my Client’s predicament appears when we first met, I am almost always able to produce a material and substantial benefit in terms of the final outcome. And that’s the term I use as a yardstick to measure success: Was I able to produce a material and substantial benefit for my Client?
This means more than just talking about my personal job satisfaction. In using the term “material and substantial benefit” as the measuring stick by which I judge my own success in any given case, it also becomes the criteria by which I decide if I will take a case. Inherent in that consideration is a question of honesty. I bristle at the jokes about Lawyers being like used-car salesman. Even so, I remember once, as a much younger Lawyer, calling an older Lawyer friend of mine to whom I wanted to refer a case far too complicated for me at the time. When I mentioned that he came to mind right away because he was an honest man of integrity, he joked “that has cost me a lot of money in my career.” Funny as that sentiment is, it really is no joke.
To be honest, and to only be willing to take someone’s money when you feel you can really produce a beneficial, tangible result means losing money. Let me cite an example from a call I received this week:
A young man called who received several infractions during the Probationary period of his Michigan Driver’s License. As a result of these several Tickets, he was placed on a Restricted License for the next 6 months. He wanted to Appeal that decision and have his License made “unrestricted” again. He was willing and able to pay the associated Legal Fee.
So there I sat, either taking this guy’s money, or not. And make no mistake, the work involved in his particular Appeal would have been extra-easy. But the fact of the matter was that I realized he had little chance of success. And that affected my interest in the case, because even if he had been willing to bet on this remote long-shot chance of winning any Appeal, I would not have had any satisfaction form the work I did. There would be no “material and substantial benefit” for my Client. If I don’t at least think I have a good, honest chance of producing such a benefit, then I’m simply not going to take the case.
I have noted, in the past, that the last thing anyone facing a Criminal or DUI charge needs is some overpriced, well-dressed mouthpiece sitting next to them and watching as they get pounded. Spectators are free. To me, it’s just another take on the Golden Rule, “treat others as you wish to be treated” in that, if I’m paying someone a nice chunk of cash for their services, I expect to get a corresponding benefit.
Sometimes, economic stress can color a person’s perception. I guess that’s a nice way of saying that there are some Lawyers who take those cases I don’t. I have no idea what they tell the person, but I do, in truth, fear that part of what they say may involve telling the Client more of what the Client wants to hear, rather than what they ought to hear. It has long been a guiding principle of mine that the worst thing that any Lawyer (or other Professional, for that matter) could ever hear from a Client starts with “But you told me!…” This means that either the Client was NOT given an honest appraisal of the situation, or there was some catastrophic failure in communication.
When I walk out of Court on any given day, I do find job satisfaction in the realization that I helped improve my Client’s situation. While others may be comfortable in the role of a “watchdog” over their Client’s rights, to me that falls short of what I need to accomplish. Rights are all good and fine, but, as Defendant, I would find little satisfaction in knowing my rights were protected, but I got hammered anyway.
In Bankruptcy cases, the benefit is immediate. Like stopping the flow of blood from a bad wound, there is a tangible and unmistakable positive result to the person affected.
In Criminal and DUI cases, the benefit can take one or more of several forms. It can range from anything to an outright dismissal of a charge to a Plea Bargain or a Sentence bargain that avoids Jail time. Saving someone’s License, or keeping a conviction off their Record, or keeping them out of Jail are all real benefits. And to me, they’re not just benefits to the Client, they’re what keep me going.
In a Driver’s License Appeal, the only benefit is winning back someone’s License. In that regard, a win is a good thing, and there is absolutely nothing about a loss that can be interpreted as any kind of benefit.
Of course, this is all my take on things. Everyone has their own perspective. That’s why they have the color samples at the paint store. If everyone thought the same, then we’d have just one or two colors. For me, however, it a necessary prerequisite to taking a case to know that, in all honesty, there is a good chance that I can produce a “substantial and material benefit” for my Client.