In the November 1, 2016 Ethics Forum column in the Pennsylvania Law Weekly written by Samuel C. Stretton, a local lawyer, he laments about how the relationship between attorneys and clients has changed, deteriorated, and become adversarial, over the last 40 to 50 years. I found the article to be fascinating, and I am devoting two blogs to the issues he has raised. This is the first blog.
One could argue that life in general has changed, relationships have changed among friends and co-workers, and that our society has become a more difficult place in which to exist and function. That change has also impacted the law, and the manner in which participants in the legal system interact with each other.
Some of the comments Mr. Stretton makes follow, and I will provide my thoughts on these comments based on my experiences:
Comment: “The loyalty and trust that used to be between an attorney and client has disappeared”.
Response: I don’t necessarily agree. I think it depends on the individual participants. My Firm has many, many clients who have been loyal to us through the years, and continue to trust us with their business. We strive to maintain a good relationship with our clients and communicate with them through a winter holiday card we send each year listing our practice areas. This has always resulted in a flurry of calls at the beginning of the new year from former clients who have read our card reminding them of our existence (more on this comment below) or reminding them of all of the areas of the law we practice. We also send out a Constant Contact Newsletter quarterly via e mail in which we add news about seminars we have taught, articles we have written, etc. Firms larger than us have an ongoing marketing agenda and sometimes professionals who do nothing but handle their marketing needs.
Comment: “Most clients are willing to turn against the lawyer at the drop of a hat and to blame the lawyer for everything”; “even clients who express their satisfaction for the lawyer will turn against the lawyer if the decision or the verdict is adverse”; ”most clients accept no responsibility for their conduct and if things don’t go their way, their first defense is to blame the attorney”.
Response: I don’t agree that most clients do these things. However, I believe that there are clients who blame others for their problems, who do not accept any blame for the situation they may find themselves involved in, and who are quick to blame their attorney or “the legal system” if they are not pleased with the result, even if the result favors them. I think some of this occurs because we live on the East Coast, where people feel free to offer their unsolicited opinions, and we live in an area which is one of the most litigious in our country. This is borne out by statistics on the types and numbers of cases that are brought in our local courts. I think some of these attitudes are byproducts of so many things being posted on the Internet, some of the story lines of movies and television series, and the inability of many people to grow up and accept the responsibility of their actions and the vagaries of what life brings their way.
Unfortunately, an unhappy former client who seeks to make him/herself vocal, even without a basis in fact or law, now has an avenue through the Internet, to damage the reputation of an attorney. I believe that although the process has been slow, the time will come, when the law, or society’s standards, will come to place limitations on what people can legitimately say or do to damage the reputations of others, much like those limitations currently exist for other forms of media.
Comment: “There is no loyalty to return to the same lawyer. One does a good job for a client and then finds out that the client had a case that would have produced a good fee, but went elsewhere”.
Response: I don’t necessarily agree that clients are not loyal to one lawyer. However, I do agree that clients often do not return to one lawyer, as in years past, when one lawyer or law firm often represented many family members for generations, and was referred to as “the family retainer.” I have written about this situation in a previous blog, not from the standpoint of disloyal clients, but from the standpoint that clients are bombarded with unsolicited information from advertisements in all forms of media, making it appear that all lawyers are super-specialized, and they assume that a lawyer they used for a case may not necessarily practice in the new area of the law they require. As I stated previously, a client may sometimes be represented by 4 or 5 different lawyers for one related matter, and most of those lawyers do not know of each other’s existence, and sometimes work at cross-purposes. An example of this is someone who was injured in a parking lot leaving their workplace; subsequently filed a worker’s compensation claim; was not accommodated by their employer while they sought medical treatment; was terminated for bringing the worker’s compensation claim; and then filed a claim for Social Security disability. In that situation they require one or more lawyers familiar with workers’ compensation law, personal injury law, discrimination/civil rights law, and Social Security law. It is unlikely that one lawyer will practice in all of these areas.
As a result, former clients will either succumb to the constant advertisements of lawyers in the media, oftentimes without remembering, considering, or consulting with their previous lawyer, or they will be referred by one of the lawyers they have consulted to other lawyers known by that lawyer. Once the above happens, it is frustrating to the lawyer who the client should have consulted initially, and who did a good job for them before. Every lawyer or law firm has their own network of attorneys which have been established over the years to whom they can refer clients if they do not or cannot handle a client’s new case. Many of these referral lawyers have been tried and tested by these lawyers and firms. Even if they don’t have anyone in their network they can refer clients to, they can direct the client to a good referral source. Just because a lawyer or firm advertises relentlessly in the media does not mean they are necessarily competent lawyers in the view of other lawyers.