Clients, Children and Father's Day

A lawyer’s role as counselor is often quiet, uncelebrated work. A dramatic verdict and high-fives on the courthouse steps catch all the attention. But soft words spoken in secret are often far more influential. Being a lawyer is a lot like being a parent.

All parents of adult children know the following: You can advise, but you can’t command. There are times in which you watch what you are certain will be a train wreck and all you can do is wish the conductor a safe trip. Humility teaches that your children will be no wiser, no better, than the you were. I get that. Parenthood has taught me hope.

Lawyering, however, still stuns me. A client comes with a problem in need of solving. They ask for your advice and counsel. You study the facts you can ascertain. You consult the law governing the conduct at issue. You counsel the client on risks and rewards of taking the various courses open before him. And then you let the client choose.

Sometimes the choices are heartbreaking. That’s where the parenthood analogy holds. You can do no more for another than they will permit you to do. Sometimes all you can do is advise, and then let the chips fall where they may. Of some folks you say, simply: “You can lead a person to the courthouse, but you can’t make them think.”

This is especially so in the case of plea bargaining. The state might offer a client a small taste of prison in exchange for a guilty plea. The client, however, cannot face any time behind bars. If the state’s case is solid, a prudent lawyer advises a plea. The client may reject the plea, go to trial and lose. The trial tax will then result in a far more severe sentence. 

Or there are cases you are sure you can win, but only a fool guarantees anything but heartache in the law. You recommend trial. The client accepts a deal you don’t recommend to avoid the risk of trial.  

These outcomes sting a conscientious lawyer.

I am persuaded that the psyche is better though of in terms of dark, inchoate forces breaking to the surface only intermittently. We are not rational actors bargaining in the law’s shadows; we are all, each of us, trying to outrun the reach of our own shadows. No one escapes irrationality.

I watched a client succumb to darkness not long ago. The client’s weaknesses were strings on which the wily played. Fear made any sound welcome to a soul terrified of nothing so much as silence. Good sense was driven away by false promises. The train drove off the cliff and into a crashing surf. Advice to take care was ignored. A silent imperative, a need I could not see, drove the decision. I was a mere spectator to this loss.

Lawyering is in the eyes of many a despised profession. We are perceived to be sharks circling the blood spilled by others. It is true that the sorrow of strangers feeds many a lawyer. But there is more to the profession than gore-mongering.  A good lawyer makes his or her best effort to staunch the bleeding; a great lawyer bleeds a little himself.

I tried recently to be a great lawyer to a client in need of counsel. The counsel went unheeded; a reckless course was adopted; the result will be catastrophe. I stand by and watch helpless to change the course set by decisions I do not condone.

How much like a parent this feels. I love my children, but I do not agree with all that they do. When they were younger their decisions sometimes hurt me as much as them: I would sit by helplessly and watch events unfold, watch consequences follow from conduct I counseled against. I never stopped loving my children; neither did I stop caring about what they did.

I am reminded of that this weekend, on the eve of Father’s Day. Lawyering, like parenthood, is an impossible job. All that we are required to do is spend ourselves trying each day to be a little better at doing what is required of us, one child, one client, at a time.



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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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