QUESTION: As a divorce lawyer, what is the most petty thing one of your clients had you do?
ANSWER: Thanks for the question. The answer is: nothing. Legal whores do petty things for clients.
FOLLOW UP QUESTION: So what happens if you and your client have a difference of opinion about how to proceed, and you feel s/he is being petty? I understand that if court is in the distant future, you could drop the client, but what if you’re physically in court and s/he instructs you to do something you feel is petty? Are you ultimately obligated to do what your client wishes, or can you refuse, be paternalistic, and do what you think is best for the client?
ANSWER: Great follow up question, and I am happy to respond.
When I’m in court and a client wants me to do or say something that is, in my opinion, A) foolish or counterproductive and/or B) malicious or petty, that is an extremely difficult position for both the client and me to be in. I don’t want the client to suffer, but the client doesn’t see it the same way (indeed the client often thinks that my reluctance means I don’t care). My client and I don’t have time to discuss the merits and weigh the risks; a snap judgment has to be made.
Is it my decision because I represent the client and I have the legal expertise the client paid me to apply? Or is it the client’s decision because it’s his/her case? What if what I think’s a bad idea would have been well-received by the court and meant the difference between victory and defeat? It’s agonizing. It really is.
Fortunately (and this is going to sound arrogant, but it’s sincere), in the overwhelming majority of these situations it is glaringly obvious when the client’s idea is good or bad, so I can feel confident about doing the good things the client suggests and confident about putting my foot down and telling the client “no, that’s not allowed” or “no, that won’t do you any good at all.”
Examples of things client often want a lawyer to do that are either not allowed by the court or that will do more harm than good:
- “I want to make a statement, Eric.” This is death 99% of the time. Clients see a crappy case heading south and think, “I know, I’ll get up and give an impassioned speech. That’ll turn things around.” Falser words were never spoken.
- “Tell the court what the witness who isn’t here to testify said.” That’s hearsay. That’s inadmissible.
- “Ask the witness this question” (and the question is usually something complete immaterial and irrelevant). For example, if the case is a property damage case (his tree branch fell on my barbecue grill) the plaintiff client may suggest that I ask the defendant whether he’s an alcoholic or an ex-con. The client believes that by painting the defendant in an unflattering light that the judge/jury will side with the plaintiff. No. Just the opposite. This kind of thing only serves to make my client look like an ass and to sway sympathies toward the other party.
- “Tell the judge that I think he/she is biased.” This is—rarely, but on occasion—actually a request that may be worth fulfilling for a client IF, and only if, there’s plenty of evidence of bias in the record. But usually the client is just angry that he/she isn’t winning and attributes that (falsely) to the judge being biased against the client. So the client’s anger, disappointment, grief, fear, etc. overrides the client’s reason to the point that he thinks bad-mouthing the judge will improve the situation.
Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277