What It Takes To Be A Great Trial Lawyer – Part 11

The Courage to Tell The Client the Truth

Many clients don’t want the truth.  A number of them want re-assurance that they are "right," regardless of the reality of the situation. Others demand to know that, at the end of the day, they will prevail. And some will fire or lose confidence in a lawyer who doesn’t give them what they want.

Great trial lawyers do not allow the desire to be employed in a given case, the desire of the client to hear only positive things (even if they have no basis in fact or law), or the fear of confrontation to trump their knowledge and experience. Great trial lawyers tell the client the truth – whether the client wants to hear it or not.

That doesn’t mean that a great trial lawyer will use the verbal equivalent of a 2" by 4" to bring the truth home (although sometimes that is necessary). Rather, a great trial lawyer will offer opinions on the case consistent with his or her knowledge of the facts and the law at the time the inquiry is made. 

Let me explain. A great trial lawyer will rarely tell a client whether they will win or lose a case at an initial interview, much less put a dollar value on the resolution of the case. First, a client may not know all the facts and there is almost certainly another side of the story. Second, the value of almost any case changes during the course of the litigation. A plaintiff who does a poor job at her deposition hurts her case. A defendant who does an excellent job helps his position. A expert who is caught in a lie hurts the party who employs him. And on and on. The point is that things change,  those changes can impact the case, and a great trial lawyer is comfortable explaining that to clients.

This is not to say that great trial lawyers are wishy-washy. It is just that great trial lawyers know that things are not necessarily what they are represented to be. Some may call these lawyers "cynical;"I prefer the word "experienced." Thus, great trial lawyers help a client understand how things can change in litigation, and promise to give a more definite opinion as the level of knowledge of the case increases. Thus, a great trial lawyer manages expectations.

Good clients, the kind of folks a great lawyer wants to represent, understand that. Bad clients do not. Bad clients want guarantees before factual discovery. And, when things turn out different than represented in the initial interview, bad clients are the first to remind you of the "promises" made in that interview. Great trial lawyers know when a client is trying to box them in, and refuse to allow it to occur.

As information is learned in a given case, great trial lawyers also tell their client the truth. They give an opinion about whether to make, accept or reject a settlement proposal, or indicate that the proposal is so within the range of reason to make it a toss-up. They give these honest opinions whether the client likes the advice or not, and explain the basis for the opinion. A great trial lawyer will not hesitate to tell a client that the client is making a mistake by not taking a recommendation of the lawyer, but then will follow the client’s wishes so long as the course of action is legal and ethical. In other words, great trial lawyers understand that client is the boss, and unless the client is demanding illegal or unethical action or the relationship between lawyer and client has become so impaired that the lawyer cannot adequately represent the client, the lawyer yields to the client’s wishes.

The first ten parts of the series.