When Our Clients Won’t Win

At some point, every lawyer has a client they cannot help. I’m not talking about the clients who are so guilty there is no defense. I am talking about clients who, because of some failure in the system, will not “win” their case. Whether winning their case means getting their kids back, getting off probation, or being paid for injuries they’ve suffered, sometimes no matter how good a lawyer is, the client is unlikely to prevail. I’ve had a handful of clients that fit this bill recently. It’s easy for the lawyer to get dragged down and worn out in these cases. But it’s not necessary.

Remain Positive but Realistic

If the system is failing the client, it’s likely the client knows it. They are probably frustrated or even angry. If their attorney is similarly beaten down, it’s of no help to the client. However, if the attorney sees light at the end of the tunnel, or at least the chance for some kind of positive outcome, she can impress that upon the client. When a client gives up, they’ll always know that they gave up. But if they give it everything they have, at least down the line they won’t blame themselves for throwing in the towel.

But at the same time, overconfidence can be damaging to a client. A lawyer’s advice should be realistic, as should the forecast. Otherwise you raise expectations of the client, which can come around to hurt the lawyer in the end.

Discourage the Client from Giving Up

Clients giving up is the issue I see the most. Besides criminal law I also handle dependency cases. In dependency work the government has taken children away from their parents because of some kind of purported risk to the children. Many of these cases take months or even years to be resolved. The dockets are often very backed up, and cases don’t get heard in a timely fashion. Moreover, once the courts have taken children, they are reluctant to return them to the “offending” parents. So now the parents spend months or years taking classes, doing services, and generally getting their life straightened out.

Unfortunately, after such a long time of fighting, any small blip in the case or breakdown in the system can put a client over the edge. Clients don’t want to fight anymore. They don’t want to have the government in their lives. Sometimes it seems easier to just give up rather than fight.

In my experience the attorney’s role at this point is a cheerleader. The attorney needs to pull the client back from the edge. If they give up, they will definitely lose. But if they can hold on and keep fighting, despite any flaws in the system, there may still be a chance.

It’s easy as the attorney in a drawn out case to want to give up as well. But as an attorney I often remind myself that it’s not my life. It’s the life of my client I’m fighting for. Even if it’s a fight I don’t want to have, that’s the job. It’s what we’ve all signed up for.

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  • DRB

    Always remember to put in writing to your client ahead of time what you believe will be the outcome of their case (especially if it is poor). That way they don’t take your positive attitude and then use it against you later with the disciplinary commission or malpractice claim.

    my two cents.

  • Mae Oaeki

    Dear Author:

    I think it may also be of useful to not couch all outcomes in terms of wins and losses. Just because client does not get most favorable outcome does not mean that client does not win. Sometimes client get bad verdict but still find some form of victory. Exempli gratia, client might not win tons of money but might get publicity against other side in lawsuit. Maybe this is not true in all instances? I guess if you have client that has murder charges and is potential of death sentence then a guilty verdict could not easily be called a partial win? But I do not think that you do that type of work? Do you? Thank you for the advice and guidance. Very useful posting and will look to you’re future advice. Thank you author.