Updated: An Odd Form of Patronage
I operate on what I call the first-date rule when it comes to potential clients. It cost me a client the other day. I am blaming an unlikely matchmaker.
The first-date rule operates in the following manner: A client is referred to you. You meet the client, or speak with them on the telephone. During that first date, you learn why the client is seeking a lawyer. You assess the issue that led them to your door. You give an assessment of how the issue might be resolved. You answer questions put to you. You ask the potential client what success would like. It’s a first date really, two strangers deciding whether to take one another on in a journey that could well define the rest of at least one party’s life. At the meeting’s end, the matter of a fee is discussed.
In almost every instance, I tell a potential client to sleep on the choice of counsel overnight. You wouldn’t make a vow to a stranger to stand by you in sickness and health, for better or worse, on a first date. You ought not to make such a vow upon first laying eyes on a lawyer. Check out other lawyers, I tell them. Only hire me if you are comfortable with me. It’s a matter of chemistry, like a marriage, I tell them.
Not long ago I met a potential client. The client’s parents called and told me their child had been arrested. The charges were very serious. The child, an adult, was in custody. Would I go to see the arrestee?
I asked the parents how they found me. They explained who the referral was. I agreed to see their child.
The attorney-client privilege prohibits me from disclosing the content of any discussion I had with the child. For purposes of this column, assume it went along the lines you read moments ago.
As I was leaving the lock up, a Gold Coast lawyer sauntered up. He was at the facility to see the same person. Was I representing the client? No, I explained. The parents asked me to visit. I met with their child and told the child to sleep on the decision. The lawyer explained that he had received a call from a public defender about the case. The child had just been arrested, and it was obvious that he would not qualify for a public defender.
It struck me as odd and troubling to think that public defenders were in the practice of referring clients ineligible for their services to private lawyers. What form of patronage is this?, I wondered.
Not more than ten minutes later, the Gold Coast lawyer walked out of the holding cell and informed me, with a sheepish look on his face, that he was representing the client. No first-date rule for this fellow: He dove right in after the fee, and I suspect he charged a large one, given the foreseeable issues in the case.
On the drive back to my office, I seethed about the lost fee. Should I have cut a deal on the spot, and eschewed the first-date rule? Don’t clients want to be swept off their feet, and to be promised the world? The client is in no better hands for having succumbed to the blandishments of the lawyer who romanced him for a Connecticut minute.
I put a call into the public defender who referred a client he could not represent to another lawyer. I tried to be polite. I had reason to believe that the public defender knew I was contacted by the parents.
"I am used the government making wild accusations," the public defender began. I stopped him in his tracks: the best defense may be a good offense, but I wasn’t going to be steam-rolled twice in one day. I pushed back. Had I fallen into his disfavor?, I asked. He explained he made the referral before knowing anything about my being contacted by the family. I accept that at face value.
But I don’t accept the fact that public defenders are in the business of referring folks ineligible for their services to private counsel of their choice. That seems wrong to me. Of course, it is possible that the client decided I was not the right lawyer. Chemistry matters.
Certainly the client in this case will be well served by the well-heeled counsel. I would have done as good a job. What is clear is that I need to spend more time stroking the public defenders in the state and federal courts. They’ve got unintended spoils to pass out. Who would have thought?
NOTE TO "CORRIE:" There is nothing wrong with a public defender's giving a recommendation when asked. In this case, the public defender never met the client or his family. The public defender simply concluded the client was not eligible and made a blind referral, apparently without realizing the family had made a choice of its own. I am sorry the context was not clear.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.