Ok. Since trust and honesty go hand-in-hand, this seems pretty obvious and not such a “secret,” right? The problem is, I’m not referring in this post to the “Don’t-Commingle-Client-Funds-With-Your-Own-Money,” or “Don’t-Say-You’re-Licensed-To-Practice-Law-When-You-Were-Recently-Disbarred” brand of honesty. Anyone who is a prospective or existing client assumes you’re licensed to practice and not going to commingle funds. It’s not an opportunity to gain trust.
When I speak of honesty as an opportunity to gain trust, I’m referring to the candor that comes into play when lawyers pitch to get a client or to get a case, and the temptation arises to be overly optimistic. For example, do you ever find yourself making statements like this: “There’s a good chance we’ll win!” Or, “Don’t worry it won’t cost much.” Or, “There’s a good chance we’ll win and don’t worry it won’t cost much!”
I’ve been criticized by colleagues because I’m not much of a salesman. I try not to oversell myself as some kind of miracle-worker, and I don’t oversell a case, even if it’s a good one. After all, every piece of litigation carries risks for both sides, particularly if it’s ultimately arbitrated or tried.
I’m not much on puffing. But I do try to provide a candid assessment of the risks, strengths and weaknesses of a case. I do this at the outset. And then I try to do it as the case progresses. I like to reassess at critical junctures. A juncture can be critical because it represents a strategic turning point; more often, however, the opportunity (or obligation) to reassess arises because we are about to invest heavily in the case. These junctures are typically: (1) before filing the action, (2) before undertaking discovery, (3) before escalating discovery or initiating depositions, (4) before filing or responding to a dispositive motion, (5) before a mediation or other serious settlement negotiation, or (6) before commencing final trial preparation (when things tend to get really costly!).
I’ll admit that complete honesty about the risks of a case and/or the potential expense has led some prospective clients to look elsewhere. I have had prospective clients pass after my “pitch” wasn’t as sugar-coated as they hoped, only to have them contact me later after the lawyer they ultimately hired disappointed them. I have not, however, had a client complain at the end of a case because I didn’t make them aware of risks or candidly discuss potential costs. This is the kind of honesty I believe builds a client’s trust in his or her lawyer.
Another potentially thorny area comes when clients look to us for immediate answers. Sometimes, when an honest answer is “I don’t know,” we are tempted instead to punt. With mixed results. I prefer, and attempt to make it a practice, to be candid if I don’t immediately know the answer to a question, and promise to find out. Even if it’s a question to which I feel I should know the answer, I remind myself that we’re all only human, and a delayed but absolutely correct answer is better than a prompt, but incorrect, one.
A final thought: sometimes the challenge in being honest about the risks or expense of a case comes, not from any intend to deceive, but from a failure to be completely honest with ourselves about the “warts” of a case or what it’s going to cost. We want for the costs to be reasonable and the odds of winning to be strong. We want it so badly that we lose touch with reality. But, as counselors of law, part of what we’re hired to provide is a reasoned, objective evaluation of the merits of a position our client plans to take. We can’t do that if we’re not honest with ourselves.