Virginia Lawyer

VaLawyer_June/July 2013

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Difficult Clients Sharpen Our Game by Jack W. Burtch Jr. There are good clients, and there are Jack W. Burtch Jr. is a founding partner of the Richmond law firm Macaulay & Burtch PC. He practices labor relations and employment law, representing management, executives, and professionals. He was recently elected a fellow of the Virginia Law Foundation and also serves as adjunct professor of law at the University of Richmond School of Law. great clients. Unfortunately, it's often the difficult clients who are the most memorable. All lawyers have heard the old adage, "There is nothing wrong with my law practice except the clients." But to be completely fair, most people who need a lawyer aren't at their best. They call either because something has gone wrong, or they are afraid something's about to go wrong. Even deal-making clients anticipating great profits sometimes resent the necessary intrusion of a lawyer. So any time we meet with clients, either in our office or theirs, a hidden tension hangs in the air. We hope to anticipate problems; they fear we will make the project more complicated. We try to provide a good solution; they want an easy result without having to navigate a maze of legalities. In the normal course of events, these tensions get resolved. The lawyer and the client proceed as a team, even if the legal issues are perplexing. There are situations however, when the team doesn't gel. What Tolstoy said about happy families also applies to difficult clients. To paraphrase, all satisfied clients are alike, but each difficult client is difficult in his or her own way. However, these clients do fall into some broad categories, and when you learn how to recognize the challenges they present, you are better prepared to handle the complex situations they create. The client who doesn't understand the limits of the legal system Some clients just don't understand that justice is neither instantaneous nor always available. Our 22 VIRGINIA LAWYER | June/July 2013 | Vol. 62 | SENIOR LAWYERS CONFERENCE system of justice offers only a limited menu of remedies. Money damages, injunction, restitution, specific performance, accounting, and declaration of rights are on the short list of what a court can do. Each of these remedies comes at the end of a specific legal process where both sides are heard and a fact-finder makes a decision. Recently, a successful business client became irate when I told him that I could not just march into court, show the judge the contract, and demand that his money be delivered that afternoon. "The contract is so clear" he said. "How can the judge not see it my way now, and why do I have to wait months for what is due to me today?" I understood his point, but he didn't get mine. What he wanted was instant justice, vending machine style: in goes his contract, out comes his money. The notion that there were two sides to the issue, each with its own interpretation of that contract, just didn't matter. My client made it very clear that if he had to wait a long time for his money, he could wait by himself, and he didn't need to pay me. The client who is always right Forget what actually happened or what the legal consequences might be. To self-righteous clients, any questions you ask are simply noise. Your failure to agree instantly is actually your failure to understand things as they really are. These clients actually don't want legal representation or advice. They want affirmation, followed by vindication. All they want is for you to tell them they are right. To suggest their situation may be subject to multiple interpretations is seen as an act of disloyalty. Suggest there may be a way to resolve or compromise a matter, and they take it as an invitation to accept defeat. To concede shows weakness. To propose settlement suggests they are wrong. Sometimes clients come to lawyers asking for a second opinion. More often than not, their first lawyer didn't agree that they were right. The second opinion they want is to hear their views reflected back to them. Clients who are always right seldom end up happy. Anything less than total victory is total failure. www.vsb.org

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