The importance of honesty

I have accepted cases from various assigned counsel programs since becoming a defense attorney.  I continue to accept them because I enjoy helping people and the challenge that many of these cases offer.  There are other reasons too, but that’s not the point, here.  The point is, not every case is fun and not every client is easy, but more often than not, when I close a case that has been assigned to me, I feel a great sense of satisfaction.

One of the most significant challenges these cases offer is due to the fact that you are not given much choice when you are assigned a new client. Whether the client is easy or difficult, he is your client and you are his attorney.    If a client seeks to retain me, I can and often do decline representation, simply because it doesn’t seem like a good fit.  You don’t get that luxury when a case is assigned.

This sort of shot-gun marriage between attorney and client can make for a difficult relationship and it takes some discipline and patience to work things out.

One thing that these cases have made clear is that honesty is vital to a successful defense.  I’m not talking about the client being honest with his attorney, but the other way around.  I’ve never made it a practice of lying to my clients, don’t get me wrong, but I have, in the past, hesitated to provide an honest and full assessment of the evidence or the wisdom of the decisions a client makes.

I didn’t hide things, but sometimes I didn’t truly emphasize the nature of how bad things could be for the client if they made a certain choice.  No one likes to be the bearer of bad news, and in a situation where you have no prior relationship with a client, it can be difficult to effectively communicate your legal advice about a client’s case when the end result may not be what they had hoped for.

It’s a little easier when the client has unrealistic expectations or when the consequence of any given decision they make is significant, but when you handle cases in which the difference between Choice A and Choice B is 15 years, the significance of the client’s choice makes my obligation pretty clear.

But as I handled more cases from the defense side, I realized that brutal honesty is essential to building and maintaining trust with a client.    The consequences of their choices are not a result of anything I control.  All I am able to do is my very best, by providing an honest and focused application of my skill and experience as an attorney.  I believe my clients deserve my best effort which is all  I can promise, the rest is out of my control.

I sometimes feel a sense of responsibility when the system makes a mistake.  A client I recently represented was charged with a crime that never actually occurred.  Not only was he innocent, but no law was broken. The facts that authorities relied upon were the result of mistakes made during their investigation that no one ever bothered to scrutinize.  As his case progressed, prior to the dismissal of the charges, I had to stop myself from apologizing to the client for the mistakes that had been made.  They weren’t my mistakes, but I still felt responsible, because I worked as a Prosecutor but also because I’m a lawyer and what the law did to him was wrong.

I finally realized what I was doing, I was taking responsibility for something that I had no control over.  I felt bad for him, and still do, but my work led to the dismissal of his charges, so why should I be the one to apologize?    I was doing it more than I realized at first. When a client would ask me what the maximum sentence was, I would tell him and feel horrible for delivering the news.  I don’t write the law, and in fact I am the only one in the Courtroom that’s likely to be fighting for a better result.

By taking responsibility for things I didn’t control, I came off as less confident in my ability.  That makes it tough for the client to trust in my ability.

The truth is,  I’m good at what I do. I’m confident the results of my best effort are better than most. That’s really difficult to say to someone without sounding like a jerk, but it’s important to tell the client that just the same.  I don’t advise clients on their choices based upon how I feel about them. My advice is based upon the likely outcome of any given choice and the impact that outcome will have.  I hope for the best, but hope isn’t relevant.  By providing honest advice that’s based upon my honest effort, I’ve done all that I can.

So now when a client asks me a difficult question, I answer it directly without sugar coating or apology because I know if I do my best, it’s all I can do, and the rest isn’t up to me.    If a client doesn’t like that, I understand, but I won’t apologize for that either.