All legal matters take a path to resolution. Resolution is the result of a judicial order, jury decision or a settlement between the parties. Many times on the road to resolution, a power struggle between client and lawyer ensues. When a client is confused about the process, or if the client is particularly angry or bitter, the lawyer often times encounters a client who truly and honestly believes that they know best.
In my practice, I often refer to my cases as trains. Trains move along tracks, the tracks are boundaries and those same tracks guide the train to station or resolution. Of course, I don’t want my train to get off track nor do I want a train wreck. My job, as the conductor is to get that train to the station safely. I use the analogy of trains to explain to my clients that there are several ways to get to the end of their case. You can choose the track to trial or the track to settlement, both of which lead to resolution. I like to travel down both paths. I believe that the best use of my time, and the client’s money and time is to know two routes to the station: the trial route and the settlement route.
When clients are confused about the process or if their emotions are extremely strong, it is very difficult for the client to allow their lawyer to lead in the process. This is not to say that the client doesn’t have a say in how the case should proceed, in fact, it’s quite the opposite in my office. I do want to know what the client wants. I do want to know to what lengths the client wants to go to get to an amicable or fair resolution of their matter. However, when it comes to getting to that end, I get to drive the train.
There is a phrase often heard in the courtroom, although I find it a bit offensive, I do believe there is some value in it. It usually goes something like this: You need to get your client under control, or your client is out of control. I think it is the tone in which it is usually said that I have a problem with, but I do understand the meaning. When a client is very unreasonable or so out of touch, one usually hears “you need to get your client under control”. I believe it is more of a comment about the quality of the lawyer than judgment of the client. Good lawyers prepare their clients by educating them on the law in relation to their desires and demands. Good lawyers have the ability to keep their clients calm during difficult proceedings. (There are always those exceptions for exceptional clients!)
Back to my train analogy….
When the lawyer doesn’t take on the role of the conductor at the start of the attorney-client relationship, control is lost and the train will run off the track or worse, crash before ever reaching the station. In my practice, I let every client know I will be preparing for settlement whether it’s an option in the beginning or not. Then, I let them know that I have a tandem track which leads to trial. By preparing for both routes, I am never caught by surprise and more importantly, neither is the client.
Additionally, as the conductor, I educate my clients on what the state of the law is, and how it applies to their case. Then, as a team, we discuss all reasonable resolution possibilities. We discuss how the law applies to their facts and what needs to happen to achieve the desired results. These discussions take place during the course of my representation, and most likely define and refine my client’s goals as circumstances change. As we approach the station, I seek to prepare my client for court. Most of the time, the client will have appear in court. There are those rare instances, such as uncontested divorces, where clients never step foot in the courthouse. Nevertheless, even in cases where a settlement is reached, the client may still have to appear to put it “on the record”. These cases include plea agreements or agreements reached day of trial. I walk my client through what questions may be asked by the Court, what their demeanor should be, how to speak to the court, and even what to wear.
By preparing my clients through education of the law, the legal process, and court procedures, clients are able to let go of the wheel, allowing me, the conductor/lawyer to safely guide their matter to resolution.
*Believe it or not, putting salt on a railroad track in Alabama was once punishable by death.