Managing client expectations is nowhere as important as when agreeing to handle a civil case for a plaintiff. There are plenty of folks who have waited a lifetime for validation for injuries real and imagined. All the courts can offer is compensation for harms the law recognizes. Interviewing clients to make sure they know the difference between real and the merely desired critical.
Epidemiological studies of the mental health of the American public are still in their infancy. We know, for example, that as many as a quarter of a million of Americans suffer clinically significant depression at some point in their lives. One percent of the population may, by some accounts, by sociopathic and devoid of any conscience. Numbers about narcissistic personality disorders or borderline personality orders are hard to come by.
So when a client calls and asks you to sue someone, the first question out of your mouth should be the following: "Why would you want to do something like that?"
Litigation is painful and ugly. The prospect of laying bare your throat to the ripping teeth of an adversary ought to deter most people. Listen carefully to why the client wants to sue.
Mere anger is never enough. Recall that anger is one of the seven deadly sins, as destructive as lust or greed. What makes these sins deadly is their ability to swallow the whole of a person and spit them out a mere caricature of a well-rounded person. Anger is a hungry beast.
If you can discern from the client's tale that she has been harmed in a manner that the law prohibits, you can then proceed to counsel the client on the difficulties of proving a case. Make sure they understand that the mere filing of suit is not tantamount to a winning lottery ticket. You must prove your case, and run the gauntlet of all the many snares judges use to avoid the hard and unpredictable work of trial. Is your client prepared for the marathon?
Only now do you discuss what is, quite literally, the $64,000 question. What will success look like for the client? Insist that they tell you what they want. Do so before you tell them what is reasonable. Some folks are so desperate to sue that they will tell you anything during the courtship phase, only to break their vows once your appearance has been filed with the court.
Throughout the interview, you've no doubt formed a pretty good sense of the potential client's strengths and weaknesses. As the years gallop by, your sense of a case's value gets better and better. We are, after all, each of us in different ways akin to used car salesman: we market in the well-worn suffering of others. Ask yourself the following: What do I think I can get for this person? Write the number down on a piece of paper.
After your potential client tells you what they want, show them your number. If the two are near to one another, you may well have the makings of a great relationship. But if you think the case is worth $50,000 and your client wants millions, be wary. You might try explaining to the client why you reached your number and why you have concluded theirs is too high. Watch them as you explain: This is your new spouse and you are explaining why you just came home late from a dinner meeting. If there is no trust, the relationship is not a good one. Good clients listen and learn.
Finally, don't be afraid to say no to a client. There is plenty of work out there. And plenty of lawyers, too. I checked a website last night to see what cases another lawyer had pending in the courts. I was surprised to see a dozen or so names of folks I had turned down in the last year. But I wasn't shocked.
Civil work is far different than criminal work. On the criminal side, whatever your client has been accused of, the fact remains that trouble is pointing at him. You get between the trouble and your client to do all you can to help. Your client is hunted.
On the civil side, you are the hunter. You seek until your client has found what he is looking for. But if your client is looking for things the court cannot provide, your hunt is futile, and your fee, no matter who high, will never cover the cost of your peace of mind.