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Should your lawyer be your friend

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Chuck Geerhart

I represent people severely injured in accidents.  My core mission is to get them as much money as possible to help compensate for their loss. But along the way, I develop relationships with my clients.  Sometimes the relationship remains very businesslike– “get my case settled for fair value as fast as possible.”  I try to do this.  Unfortunately, the corporations (insurance and others) who control the money oftentimes do not want a fair or fast settlement.  They would rather hold on to their money while my clients suffer.  My job is to be the enforcer.

When I first meet a prospective client and sign him or her up, we are both looking for cordiality– we want to like each other, because we are going to be in a relationship that may least a year or more. In fact, I often decline to represent prospective clients with whom I do not “click”– even if they have a good case.  I want to enjoy representing my clients.

I usually make a pre-litigation settlement demand.  To do this, I need to understand my client’s injuries, medical treatment and prognosis so I can demand the right amount. There is a lot of bonding with client in this process. I spend a lot of time learning the client’s records, and talking to the client to understand her pain.  I have to explain that we start with a demand higher than what we will ultimately receive in settlement– that’s just the way negotiation works.  This is the first time I have to be forceful and firm with the client– she cannot come out of this conversation thinking that the amount demanded is what she will receive.

Once a case is in litigation, my relationship with the client invariably deepens.  The typical client has never filed a lawsuit, and is somewhat flummoxed by the all the arcane details of litigation, starting with discovery.  I have answered form interrogatories hundreds of times in my career. My clients, no matter how educated, uniformly find them confusing and oppressive.  Here is where my role as professional has to be paramount: I have to insist they do a great job in helping me answer the interrogatories, explaining that these are sworn response that can be used against them in court. I can also empathize (“You’re right, these are really a pain”), but I can’t let them off the hook.

Depositions are a stressful time for the client. I always spend as much time as needed in person getting the client ready.  In this process, I may have to deliver some tough truths to the client about how she should be answering questions.  We practice the questions, especially if there is a tough liability area. I run the risk of offending the client, but it is my job to get her ready not to be manipulated by defense counsel.  

As the case proceeds, I have a duty to keep the client apprised of what’s happening, both good and bad.  Clients fall in love with their cases.  Lawyers do too. We are the professionals– we sometimes have to break bad news to the client (“Your surgeon is unwilling to say that the accident caused the need for surgery”).  This bad news almost always means less settlement money is available.  Now you are really hitting the client where she lives– she’s been counting on that money!  Maybe for years.  Yes, this is where the client may blur your role – aren’t you her friend? Aren’t you on her side?  Client: “It sounds as if you’re taking the insurance company’s side on this.”

I have a response: “One of the reasons you hired me, really the most important reason, is to give you unvarnished professional advice about the value of your claim.  I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you the good and bad about your claim. I need you to trust and respect my many years of experience doing this.”  I find most clients respect this statement. They may not like it, but often it is a turning point in the relationship when a case has reached this stress point.

In mediation, where the client must make financial decisions fairly rapidly, the lawyer must be extremely careful not to blur friendship with professionalism. Clients hear a dollar amount offered, like $100,000 and may not realize that from that amount must come attorney’s fees, costs, and medical liens. The client might net only $50,000.  I must run numbers with the client at the mediation to make sure the client has at least a rough approximation of her net.

When the net is lower than the client wants (almost always), then I must again be the professional and explain the probable outcome if the case is tried. Yes, you might do better. But you might do worse. And costs and fees will be higher. “Let me run some numbers for you under all scenarios.”  Most clients simply want to feel well-informed about their options. They are strangers in a strange land. It’s all mystifying, and it involves their money. If we can help demystify the process, we are doing precisely what they hired us to do.

Throughout, we can also be their friend. I have remained friendly with most of my clients for many years after the representation. Some have become good social friends. I always try to end every engagement on a positive note so they feel they were well-protected in the legal system.

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