Being a lawyer can be an extremely stressful job. Attorneys often need to contend with antagonistic adversaries who can make the life of a counterpart a living hell. In addition, lawyers may have to handle clients who can make it difficult to complete a representation. As mentioned in a prior article, it is not uncommon for clients to provide gifts to lawyers in order to thank them for a job well done. However, most of the time, the only thank you a lawyer gets from a client (even if the attorney goes above and beyond normal expectations) is getting paid on time, and this is almost always a sufficient expression of gratitude from clients.
I learned this fact of practicing law earlier in my career when I was an associate at a smaller shop. The partner and I were working for a particularly needy client, the type of person who would email you a second time if the first email was not responded to within a few hours. We needed to spend three times the energy on this client than on any other client we worked for at that firm because the client’s demands were over the top, and the client made a mountain out of a mole hill for each stage of the litigation process.
I think I said offhand that the client should be grateful that we were willing to handle such issues from the client and that we still did quality work on the file. The partner said that the client thanked us by paying us on time. The partner was of course right, and lawyers often need to work with needy clients as well as solid clients when building their practice.
On numerous times in my career, I have gone above and beyond for my clients, and receiving on-time payment was just about the only expression of thanks I ever got (which was fine by me). One time, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I handled a deal for a flat fee. Due to the complexities of COVID-19, the deal required around quadruple the time that a typical closing took. Moreover, because of the uncertainty of the economic climate in the early months of the pandemic, my client wanted out of the deal.
I cautioned that backing out of the deal could create significant legal liability for my client. My client was unhappy to hear my advice and said some hurtful comments to me. This was tough to hear, especially since I was working so hard on his deal for a very modest fee.
The deal ended up going on without a hitch, and as we all know, the economy rebounded pretty quickly after the initial downturn. This made my client’s deal much, much more favorable than what the client could have gotten six months in the future, and it would have been extremely misguided to cancel the deal. The client never apologized for saying hurtful comments and never thanked me for giving him good advice about the deal. And I never needed such thanks since on-time payment by the client was enough of a thank you for me.
Another deal I handled also required me to go above and beyond the normal workload for lawyers. For deals of this type, it was typical to handle payments through wire transfer. However, I once represented a client who wanted me to go to the closing in person and pick up the client’s payment. It was a schlepp to go to the closing, but I wanted to make the client happy, so I agreed.
The client also required that I hand-deliver the check with the closing proceeds to the client to avoid the possibility that the check would be lost in the mail. The whole ordeal took almost an entire day since I had to drive to attend the closing, attend the closing for about an hour, and the drop off the check to the client before driving home. When I delivered the check to the client, I never received gratitude of any kind despite all of my effort. Perhaps the client did not know how atypical all of this work was, but in my mind, I was fine with just accepting the client’s payment as gratitude enough for all of this work.
All told, sometimes lawyers go above and beyond for their clients in extraordinary ways, and clients do not explicitly thank their lawyers for such efforts. However, lawyers should have a mindset that payment by a client is enough of a thank you, since we are in a service industry where compensation and repeat business is usually thanks enough.
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.