Lawyers usually have a somewhat detached and professional relationship with their clients. Clients want to know that their counsel is calm and collected, and discussions between clients and their lawyers usually do not raise any eyebrows. However, lawyers and clients often need to deal with extremely personal matters, and passions can be stoked at times. As a result, it is not uncommon for clients to have heated discussions with their clients, and sometimes, this can help solidify the attorney-client relationship.
When I was an associate in Biglaw, I did not have much contact with clients. The partners were expected to communicate with clients and cultivate the connections that were important to securing additional work. Associates usually were expected to do their work with a two-dimensional view of their clients, and we relied on partners for all of the information that might be needed to perform a given task.
When I worked at smaller law firms, I had much more contact with clients. I soon learned that clients are ordinary people like everyone else. They have personalities, gripes, and preferences, about which lawyers should be informed in order to best serve their clients. Since smaller firms interact with smaller clients that might not have a dedicated legal team, it is more likely that these shops interact with a wide range of individuals with different personalities. It was in this capacity as a lawyer at smaller firms that I first saw that lawyers can have healthy relationships with their clients even though they may have heated discussions.
The first time I saw this situation was at a mediation shortly after I started working at a smaller law firm. There were a few defendants, and at various times during the mediation, all of the defendants and their counsel were placed in the same room since we needed to mount a joint defense. At one point, the other defendant’s lawyer was talking to his client about the merits of settling a case rather than continuing to litigate the matter to trial eventually. The client did not want to settle the matter out of a deep-seated resentment for the plaintiff, and he was holding up a resolution of the matter out of principle.
The defendant’s lawyer had some harsh words for his client about how it was foolish to continue litigating the case rather than taking a fairly reasonable settlement. Of course, legal fees would continue to accrue as long as the case continued, and there was no certainty of success at trial. The lawyer used some harsh words to describe his distaste for his client’s decision to continue the case, and the discussion got relatively heated, which was awkward for me. Eventually, the matter settled for a reasonable amount of money, and everyone was spared the time and expense of litigating the matter further. I saw the client thank his lawyer later for giving him “tough love” that helped push him toward settling the matter rather than spending resources to continue litigating the case.
Sometimes, lawyers need to show tough love to their clients just to make sure that their clients comply with their legal obligations during litigation. Clients need to respond to discovery demands, sit for depositions, and complete other tasks during the life of a lawsuit. Some clients are difficult and do not want to spend their time completing tasks associated with litigation. This can have significant consequences for the litigation and for their attorney under certain circumstances.
One time, I was working at an insurance defense firm and a client we represented kept failing to provide information or cooperate with the defense of a case. The partner eventually got frustrated with the client’s behavior and chewed him out by phone. This partner also related that this litigant might lose his insurance coverage if he did not cooperate with his counsel, and you could tell the attorney’s frustration by the tone of his voice. Eventually, the litigant started helping out more in the defense of the lawsuit, and this party was able to complete its obligations during the lawsuit. The client eventually thanked his counsel for staying on his back and ensuring that the litigant did what he needed to do in order to defend against the lawsuit.
Of course, in most circumstances, it is important to be calm, collected, and professional when interacting with clients, to show the coolheadedness clients often expect from lawyers. However, in the right circumstances, showing tough love and having heated discussions can fortify the attorney-client relationship and may serve a number of goals.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.