One of the things that law school didn’t really prepare me for was the clients who you can’t help.
When I first started practicing law, I was eager to help clients and potential clients, and there was one who stands out in my memory as the first one I couldn’t help. He had cosigned on a car for a relative, who had defaulted, and he came to see me, because the bank had come calling on him. I saw nothing in the documents or the circumstance he described that would permit me to be of any meaningful assistance, but I was slightly worried that he might try to hurt me after I told him that I couldn’t help him.
He was very deliberate as he pushed back from the table, and left the room, never saying a word, and his jaw set like a rock. After my initial relief at not having to dodge a punch or three wore off, I recall thinking “Well, that’s one person whom I’ll never see again.”
But I was wrong.
Before I moved on from that firm, the man came back to see me two more times. The next time I met with him, he had a contract he wanted me to review before he would decide whether or not to sign it. I was delighted that he consulted with me first. I read through the document, noted a few points that I though he should be aware of, which prompted him to tell me that he was going to think about it before deciding to sign or not. After wrapping up my notes, I looked up and said “Can I ask you something?”
He smiled and said “Let me guess. You want to know why I came back.”
I nodded my head and said “Yes. I could tell you were pretty upset when you left last time.”
He laughed and said “You’re not wrong, but I will tell you that I wasn’t upset with YOU. In fact, I liked the way that you didn’t sugar coat it, even though you didn’t like telling me that there was nothing you could do. You were honest with me, you didn’t waste my time, and you told me what I did wrong without making me feel stupid. I knew I had found someone I could trust, and that makes you worth the money you charge.”
I saw him one more time, when I wrote a Will and powers of attorney for him. Again, he expressed his thanks for the straightforward advice, and the no-nonsense approach. I still think of him often, because I still encounter people whom I can’t help. I won’t say that it’s easier telling clients this now than it was then, but I find that by trying to be respectful of their time, and by trying to not make them feel stupid because they made a mistake, I give them something of value, even if it was only allowing them to leave with the dignity they had when they walked in to my office. Not everyone reacts well to such news, but I have managed to keep a few of them as clients because I approached their problems in this manner, which turns a negative into a much larger positive.