A long time ago, I was watching one of those television shows that dramatized supposedly real-life situations that occurred in hospitals. One of the episodes involved a person who came to the emergency room complaining of all kinds of things, and it was eventually revealed that this person was completely fine, but liked to play doctor and that was the reason for his visit. When he thought no one was looking, he put on a white coat and looked at imaging as if he was a trained medical professional. I was thinking about this scenario recently and realized that it somewhat applies to the legal profession. Sometimes, clients like to play lawyer, and this might be the reason why they seek legal consultations or take over certain parts of a representation. Lawyers should be leery of clients who might want to use the judicial process in order to be involved in the legal system or act out something that they saw on TV.
For some clients, being involved in the judicial system is an exciting situation and acts out a long-time fantasy. For instance, I once heard about a colleague who was involved in a relatively small personal injury matter. Normally, such matters would settle since it is often much better to have money in one’s pocket than deal with the uncertainty of litigation and a trial. However, the plaintiff in this case refused to settle the matter even though the plaintiff had ben offered a significant amount of money to put the case to rest.
As it turned out, the client had always wanted to become a lawyer, but never went through with the process of attending law school, passing the bar, and joining the legal profession. This client apparently thought that this was her chance to be a part of the legal process. The client had an attorney, so the client would not be actively involved in the legal process, but just having her case heard by a judge and jury seemingly filled some kind of fantasy of this client, and that is why this lawsuit kept going even though many other similar lawsuits would have been settled long before.
Sometimes clients do want to participate in legal tasks at least partly so that they can have more involvement in the legal process. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a client completing tasks as part of a representation. In fact, this sometimes helps a client get the best representation possible and this can also help the client minimize legal costs. However, there are certain parts of a legal representation in which it is very uncommon for clients to be involved in, and clients might wish to complete such tasks to fulfill their desire to fully experience the legal process.
I once heard a story from an old-time lawyer about a client who wanted to attend a deposition. This is somewhat rare, but clients usually are permitted to attend depositions, and sometimes, they do in order to see how a case is proceeding. However, the client wanted to ask questions at the deposition. This is very uncommon, and in my own career, I have never seen a client do this. It was unclear why the client could not simply write down questions that the lawyer could ask and why the client needed to personally ask the questions at the deposition. I never heard how that matter was resolved, but if any lawyer has experienced a similar situation in their own careers, I’d love to hear about it. In any event, since the client could have easily just written the questions down for the lawyer, it seemed that the desire to ask questions might have come from wanting to be more personally involved in the judicial process.
The adage about the lawyer who represents himself having a fool for a client is true in pretty much every situation. Those was proceed without counsel usually have limitations, and those that like to step in and de facto oust their retained attorney also might experience the downside of proceeding without the benefit of counsel. Of course, it is understandable that people would like to take an active role in their legal matter and participate in the legal process. Movies and television shows often dramatize the legal arena, and being involved in a legal matter can be an interesting situation for a client. Nevertheless, clients should try not to play lawyer and supplant the guidance of their retained counsel so that they have the best chance at realizing a positive outcome from a legal representation.
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 email@example.com.