Legal blogging rock star and client service guru Dan Hull recently recommended an interesting book, Lawyering: A Realistic Approach to Legal Practice, by James C. Freund. Trusting Dan’s judgment, I promptly ordered up a dog-eared copy of the tome from AbeBooks.
Turning first to the chapter entitled “Handling Clients,” I found some interesting and sage advice right away. Freund asks what do you do when a client calls and wants to be counseled whether her company can legally do something. In the simplest terms, if a client asks you the sum of 2 + 2, do you automatically say 4? Or should we be concerned with what the client wants to hear? Would she prefer to hear 5?
Recognizing this sounds like ethical blasphemy, Freund rushes to explain himself:
“Now before you round up a posse to haul me before the bar association, let me hasten to add that the reason for desiring this knowledge is not . . . that it can or should affect the substance of your answer or reaction, where a legal issue or some other objective manifestation of your views is concerned. You’re not worth your salt as a lawyer if you provide phony answers to please a client. You have to call ‘em as you see ‘em, no matter what the consequences: it may be painful at the time, but in the long run your client will respect you for this and value your advice all the more.
On the other hand, knowing how the client wants to come out can be very important to you in deciding on the manner in which you reply–the style, as contrasted with the substance–and on shaping any practical advice you might offer.” (151-152)
Freund offers a couple of good illustrations, hypos if you will, to make his point. In the first, you are called by a client CEO who immediately announces you are on speaker phone and in the room with him is an “Employee.” CEO wants to know whether the company can issue the Employee shares of stock which the Employee will pay for with promissory notes.
While the law either allows or doesn’t allow the company to issue shares to an Employee to be paid for with promissory notes (I have no friggin’ clue), Freund points out that “the way that you handle the question can be influenced significantly by whether . . . (CEO) actually wants to issue . . . (Employee) some stock for notes, or whether . . . (he)’s just going through a charade–using you as a whipping boy–for the benefit of . . . (Employee).” (152)
What do you do? Freund suggests you try to ascertain what client CEO really wants to hear before you begin providing advice (assuming, unlike me, you could answer this query on the fly). Freund concedes it may not be easy to determine CEO’s angle:
“By the way, ascertaining . . . (CEO)’s real interest here may not be so easy–and tomorrow, you should let him know what an uncomfortable position he put you in, with a warning against future repetitions. For openers, don’t answer right away. Get . . . (CEO) talking; he’s likely to drop a clue (such as, ‘I told (Employee) this was a very difficult thing for a public company to do . . .’), which you can then pick up on.” (152)
Another way to get an idea what the client is looking for is to “test the water. Say: ‘And what did you tell him when he made that suggestion?’ The client’s reply should give you a fair indication of the direction in which he’s heading.” (153)
But why do you want to know? Again, it’s not about conjuring a phony answer, but about subtly strengthening your relationship with the client and bringing greater value. For example:
“If you determine that . . . (CEO) isn’t really interested in issuing the stock, you can emphasize the legal difficulties which do exist under the applicable state law when you use notes to pay for par value shares–to say nothing of the unfriendly scrutiny such a transaction would receive from stockholders, other employees, and so on. All of this is good, sound counsel; you’re not deceiving anyone . . . On the other hand, if you sense that . . . (CEO) very much wants to issue the shares, then your litany of difficulties would be somewhat more muted, with a smooth transition into a constructive analysis of how the transaction can be accomplished–by securing the note, charging bona fide interest, and so on.” (152)
Again, as Freund says, the object of this preliminary fact-finding isn’t to cause you to change the substance of your advice to match the client’s desires, but instead to influence how you present the advice. The closer we get to the justifiably coveted status of “trusted advisor,” the more these subtleties matter. We’re not legal research “machines,” hired to churn out one-dimensional answers to legal questions without regard to how our advice impacts the client. Our role is not just to protect, but to advance the client’s interests, and the route to this goal is not always obvious or easy.