YOUR BEST FRIEND (Knowing who your friends are, and aren't, in law practice)
Updated: Jul 14, 2020
Law practice is a business. Make no mistake, it is a TOUGH business. This doesn’t mean you have to be an insensitive lout to succeed, but you should be AWARE of many things, such as….
The clients are not your friends.
You can like them, you can care about them, you can empathize, you can feel their pain, and you can put your guts on the line for them, but they are not your friends. The clients may even like you, but you are not their friend. They want you to be a professional who works on their behalf. They have a right to have expectations, and you have a right to look out for yourself.
You have a right to be treated with respect, to be told the truth, and to be paid in accordance with your fee agreement. Sometimes these things don’t happen, and you have to protect yourself. How? By being clear and direct when there are issues that need to be addressed. Clients often do not address these issues with clarity and directness, nor should you expect them to. You are the professional, you have to be clear and direct.
The Judges and the Court system are not your friends.
You must respect them, but you should know your respective places in the scheme of things. When you interact with the Court, you are in a business that requires you to serve your clients, and also protect yourself. Who are the Judges and people in the Court system? Are they in a business, like you? Hardly. They are civil servants on a fixed salary. There, I said it!
When you make them work you are not their friend. They MIGHT care about people like your clients, but they might not. They MIGHT be able to relate to you as an attorney in practice, but probably not. They don’t want to take sides or ever be perceived that way. SO, unless and until you put something in their face that forces them to care, they don’t care.
Often, they “care” only to the extent you've forced them to work. This is often a big shock to clients, who think that when a case gets filed, “the Judge” knows about it (they usually don’t), and that upon reading your papers they are interested (they aren’t), and that the Judge will somehow become “pro-active” based on your telling them the merits of your client’s position (which almost never happens).
In reality what Judges want most is for the cases to be resolved without having to actually decide them. When cases are being discussed in Court, Judges and court personnel routinely refer to settled cases as “going away”. As in “what would it take to make this go away?” Clients don’t know that Judges talk about the cases this way, but they do.
Your adversaries are not your friends.
A little dance happens in contested civil cases. You need to negotiate, on behalf of your client, with your adversary who is acting on behalf of their client. You have a bunch of discussions. Along the way you get along with your adversary. I’ve become friendly with many lawyers I first met as adversaries. It makes sense….I have more in common with them than most new people I would meet. That being said, no matter what, when you are involved in a case with them, they are not your friend. (Paradoxically, sometimes your attorney adversary is indirectly your client’s best friend, because they are the only person who can convince your client’s adversary to do what is right.)
In practice, while being aware of who your friends are (and aren’t), you have to continually do the three things that comprise a successful law practice:
1. Get new work.
2. Do the work well.
3. Deal with the money.
Friendship has NO ROLE in any of these items, the essential elements of your practice.
Here’s what many of us do. We are friendly, because it’s EASY and we are NICE. We are friendly and nice with our prospective clients. Then we are confronted with a decision: Take the case or not. It's a business decision, friendship should play NO role. Making bad business decisions because we are friendly and/or nice is bad news across the board.
We think our friends (clients, Courts and adversaries) will understand we are busy, we are earnest, and we are doing the best we can on all our cases. We fall behind. Maybe we make excuses. Maybe we don't explain things at all. But we're friendly.
Then we see that all our friends are not so friendly. All our friendliness has gotten us buried. And we have no time to ....
be attentive to getting new work...
do quality work on existing cases
deal well with financial issues
If you let this happen, or if this has already happened, you have been awfully unfriendly to the person who should be your best friend…
P.S.. – You can and should be friendly to yourself, and friendly to others. You can even act friendly and compassionately towards people you realize are “not your friends". Just remember to also keep YOUR BEST FRIEND in mind when you make the many decisions we must make as entrepreneurs.