Many older lawyers lament how our profession has turned into a business. Or at least most do — some of my more experienced colleagues think the profession was too limited and not enough of a business in the past. The cliche in business is that the customer is always right. If the customer says the chicken is overdone, he’s right and you, chef, are wrong. If the customer says the television does not work the way it should, she is right, and you, the electronic salesperson, are wrong.
It’s not like that with us lawyers. We’re supposed to be experts. Customers — clients — come to us all the time and can be woefully wrong. Indeed, sometimes the reason a client hires a firm like ours is because they got into some dispute or some mess and, yes, when looking back, we can agree they did something wrong. Telling a client that they were right when, in fact, they did something wrong, can be exactly the wrong thing to do. We’re not here to stroke our clients’ egos or make them feel good about themselves (at least, trial lawyers like my collegues and I are not). We’re here to counsel and fight for them and hopefully do justice. And sometimes that means identifying exactly how the client was wrong so that we can try to make things right.
However, while we are not salespeople, nor present simply to flatter a client’s ego, that does not mean that we are not in a service industry. While some litigators do forget this, we are, in fact, service professionals. Our cases can be cool and fun and all that. But there are clients behind every single cool case. And we must be supremely loyal to those clients. Loyalty does not mean telling the client she is right, just like good parenting does not mean telling our children they can get whatever they want (as much as clients paying us money want to be told that they are right, and goodness knows teenagers are certain in only the way the inexperienced can be that they are completely right about everything). Loyalty to a client, akin to good parenting, means setting aside the self to discern what we truly believe to be in the client’s best interests, counseling the client to see what is in her best interests, and then seeking those goals.
The lawyer-parent analogy of course breaks down here, in that while parents may be obligated to do exactly what their children state they do not want, we as lawyers cannot so do. We need client consent for our actions. But my view is that we need to obtain consent for what we believe to be in the client’s best interest. It may be hard, and maybe later on we even realize we are wrong. But I find we almost always get it right, and then loyalty means fighting like hell for the client.
We are different than salespeople in that it may well be our job to tell the client she is wrong. Unlike salespeople, we are not supposed to be loyal to the pitch, but to the client. Aside from maintaining our integrity, loyalty to the client is the supreme virtue of a trial lawyer.
John Balestriere is an entrepreneurial trial lawyer who founded his firm after working as a prosecutor and litigator at a small firm. He is a partner at trial and investigations law firm Balestriere Fariello in New York, where he and his colleagues represent domestic and international clients in litigation, arbitration, appeals, and investigations. You can reach him by email at [email protected]