Twelve years ago I was working as a Superior Court law clerk and interviewing for a post-clerkship position at law firms. This was a dispiriting process. Many of the lawyers who I met seemed to find little joy in their careers. I believed that all I was looking for ways to work in a firm where I could get into the courtroom – the sooner, the better. Since that time I have come to realize that, as thrilling as it is for me to handle jury trials, my day-to-day job satisfaction is mostly derived from helping my clients wrestle with much smaller issues, like the unpaid ambulance bill. It is through our working relationship that I am able to obtain the best results for the client, as it provides the foundation for strong, trust based advocacy, and ultimately, for winning the case.
It is easy to work with calm, rational clients who are not under financial stress. The greater challenge is to work with emotional or financially-strapped clients. Injuries do not discriminate. They affect all types of people. In spite of individual differences, however, all injured clients need and deserve the best possible legal representation. This is a service business. It is providing the best service to people that is the most rewarding part of my job as a lawyer.
The first meeting, or intake, is crucial to setting the right tone. Most clients come to the intake nervous, worried and confused. My goal is for the client to leave calm, well-informed, and with the belief that I will take good care of them. We have tremendous responsibilities in representing our clients. In some ways, however, we are no different than plumbers or carpenters. Professional and skilled-trade workers alike possess knowledge and skills that their clients or customers do not have. When a client hires a lawyer, he is entrusting a person he barely knows with a significant and highly-personal matter. Earning and maintaining the client’s confidence will flow naturally from doing good work.
People who are injured due to the negligence of others come to me with a number of issues that require prompt action. Although the fallout from being involved in an accident is familiar to lawyers, it is daunting and uncharted territory for most clients. Often the client is dealing with multiple insurance companies. He is struggling to get his car repaired and to obtain an allowance for a rental vehicle. He may not understand which insurer (his own, or the other driver’s) can or should pay for the damage. He has been asked to provide interviews, complete complicated forms, and sign medical authorizations. On top of these practical nuances, he may be suffering from debilitating injuries, confused about his medical diagnosis and likely outcome, and laboring to make ends meet while disabled from work. Meanwhile, his medical bills continue to mount, and medical billing personnel may be refusing to accept his insurance or government health care plan.
Taking the best care of an injured client is a continuous process of communication and action designed to leave the client with only two responsibilities: to take care of his own medical needs, and to keep me informed of his medical progress and other significant developments. At the first meeting, I want to relieve him of all other burdens by taking over responsibility for communicating with the insurers, coordinating the payment of bills, and providing him with clear information about what to expect from the process.
Before the client leaves the first meeting I make a conscious effort to impress upon him that I really do care about him and I am passionate about my work. It took me several years practicing law to realize that many clients are intimidated by the process and can be shy or self-conscious about contacting me. A number of times I heard clients say, “I don’t want to take up your time, I know you are busy.” Now, I tell every client that I want him to take up my time, because I need to understand what he is going through in order to achieve the best result in the case.
One of the greatest complaints that clients make about their lawyers is that they do not return phone calls. This problem can be avoided by taking a team approach. To be well cared for, clients need to be supported, not just by me, but also by my staff. From the outset, I tell my clients who they will be working with on my staff. They leave the meeting understanding that my staff is there to address their needs and will keep me well-informed of all issues. With that said, I also make clear to my client that I will call back promptly if he wants to hear from me.
Through taking good care of my client, we develop rapport and trust. This makes the process that we will go through together less difficult for both of us. We are better able to make good decisions, to strategize about the case, and to obtain the best possible result. If we are unable to settle the case, then I still get to experience the thrill of trying the case to a jury. For me, this is an opportunity to take good care of this person who has put himself in my hands: to put him in the hands of a jury and convince them to take care of him too.