The Guilt of Representation

I discovered an interesting weakness recently. It’s a weakness I’ve been aware of for a long time, but don’t often consider. I forgot about it to some extent, since my mom hasn’t used it against me in quite some time. I should have built up a resistance to it. But, as I discovered while sending an engagement letter to a new client recently, I haven’t. The weakness? Guilt.

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A potential client contacted us recently. The client got a letter in the mail threatening them with a lawsuit. I met with her, her brother, and her parents, reviewed the letter, and got more information about the facts of the case. Neither party had much legal ground to stand on. There was no formal lawsuit filed yet, just a threatening letter. I assumed I could handle the case and reach some kind of settlement by just talking to the other attorney. So I agreed to help them, laid out the terms of the representation, and quoted a relatively humble fee.

Fast forward a few months and there has been no resolution. The other attorney has not budged on the settlement offer of “the full amount.” I’m still confident it will settle for less than the full amount. But not much less. So I started to feel my guilt creep in. This client could barely afford to settle the case. Who am I to ask for more money on top of that, just to make some phone calls and write some letters?

I even suggested to my partner that we do this one pro bono. He, of course, had no objection. “It’s your case,” he explained. “But remember, we aren’t going to win them all. We probably won’t even win most. So you can’t give the services away every time a case doesn’t pan out as expected. That’s for PI lawyers.”

He’s right. And, at the end of the day, I did deliver a service. It’s not like I was just ushering them through a process they could have handled on their own. It still felt wrong at some level though, so I reduced the fee even more in order to assuage my conscience.


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  • Steve

    I feel your pain. I’ve reduced my fees in situations similar to the one you described. Unlike you, I am a solo attorney – no partner, no support staff, and I work from a home office. I thoroughly enjoy the nature of my practice, but there are times, such as the one you described, when I wish I had someone internally to discuss these issues with. Ultimately, I try to think about my responsibility to provide for my family and the service I provide to my clients when such thoughts creep in. My clients couldn’t do this alone, and I am providing a valuable service. Moreover, my fees are much less than an attorney with similar experience because my overhead is so low (again, no support staff and I work in a home office). So, not only are they receiving a valuable, necessary service, they are already receiving a discount for legal services.

  • Josh,

    I’ve been there. When you personally identify with your clients it can sometimes be hard to make purely financial decisions. But that’s okay. Practicing isn’t all about dollars and cents. Once you make enough money to cover your needs it’s more about practicing in a way that makes you happy than about exactly how much money you make. Somehow we have to develop the confidence to know that our work is worth it without losing the ability to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes. In 20 years are you going to care about the fee or the opportunity to help that client?

    I once heard a story about a lawyer who told a widow to pay him what she thought his work was worth for probating her husband’s will. She gave him 50 cents. He thought about it for a minute and gave her a quarter in change.

    It’s a balancing act, but I think you did the right thing.

  • You provide a valuable service.

    If you can’t provide clients with a valuable service decline representation. I’ve told people plenty of times that they don’t need an attorney to plead out their speeding ticket, or that pursuing a matter where $1000 is in controversy simply isn’t worth it. You’d be paying me for nothing, and I’m not in the business of unhappy clients.

    If the case isn’t worth taking to court, it might also not be worth taking on. If liability is rock solid, and your client has assets, what is your role if you can’t do anything? Why pay your fee and the defendant?

    However, an analysis of their case is a valuable service, for which you should be paid. Sometimes people need to be told “you’re screwed” from a lawyer, instead of the belly rubs they’re used to. “You’re screwed, pay up, or they’ll get a judgment against you and force the issue. Sorry you didn’t want to hear that, but it’s true.”

    That said, I think the guilt thing is good. There are many lawyers who would be all too happy to take your clients’ fees without providing them anything of value. “Sure, you should DEFINITELY pay me $500 to handle your $120 traffic ticket! It’s very important to have a lawyer for these things!”

    • Corinna

      I’m a new solo attorney and my fear is that the client won’t like how much I charged and therefore won’t ever hire me again. In part I figure, “they could get a contract for this agreement for free off the Internet, so I can’t charge them too much!”

      This quote of yours struck home for me; I thank you for for it:
      “However, an analysis of their case is a valuable service, for which you should be paid. “

      • Corinna, I have a huge problem with your quote “They could get a contract for this agreement for free off the internet, so I can’t charge them too much!”

        The problem with this viewpoint (which I have fallen prey to before) is that getting a contract off the internet doesn’t avail you of any of the other aspects of legal advice. Sure, you could prepare your own contract which might be substantially the same as the one I prepare for you, but along with that contract comes a significant amount of legal advice.

        When you act for a client and prepare a contract, you are assuming a large amount of risk in case something goes wrong. That, in part, is what your client is paying for; your insurance is their insurance.

        That being said, if the contract is something they could get off the internet, you should have a basic precedent and thus be able to substantially reduce your own time investment on future clients with similar issues. As a new solicitor, my firm writes off much of my time as ‘precedent building’, and if I spend 5 hours on drafting a contract, it means I can do it in 20 minutes the next time.

  • Josh Reynolds

    Let me posit an alternative theory. Somewhere in the back of your head, you felt guilty because you thought a more experienced lawyer would have either assessed the matter differently, or handled the matter differently, and obtained the results the client wanted. You felt badly that you were unable to do so, and it’s that guilt that led you to forego charging any further fees.

    If so, then you are wrong to feel guilty. The client knew you were new when they came to you (assuming, as I do, that you didn’t misrepresent your experience). They paid you a new lawyer’s fee and got a new lawyer’s service in exchange. If things didn’t work out as anticipated, it happens. They could have gone to a more experienced lawyer, paid a more experienced lawyer’s fee, and gotten what they paid for. Their choice. They placed a bet and lost.

    Another point of interest: Joshua above writes:

    “In 20 years are you going to care about the fee or the opportunity to help that client?”

    Let me suggest what you might care about 20 years from now. You’ve got 2.4 kids, and they want to eat every day. They need a roof over their heads, a car to get them to soccer practice and next year there will be a tuition bill from an elite university that needs paying. You took an oath to defend the Constitution and your clients. You took no oath of poverty. Twenty year from now, you will care a whole lot more about providing for your children than about any guilt you feel about being paid for your services.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with pro bono. Just make sure you understand why you want to give it away for free.

    • shg

      There are way too many people named “Josh” here. And Jordan would have been named Josh too if his mother wasn’t drunk when she was asked to fill out the form and screwed it all up.

      What’s wrong with a nice name like “Leo”?

      • I blame all these other Josh folks. I will now be referring to them as Other Josh.

  • John C

    As practicing lawyers we’ve all had similar situations. You will find that you will have less of these as you progress in your career, either because you become more adept at weeding out those cases that don’t really require legal representation, or you become more accustomed to telling clients that “I do this for a living, thank you very much.” Consider it one more lesson learned along the path to a comfort zone in terms of handling clients and their cases.

  • Josh: do as Foonberg recommends. Put a picture of your wife, fiancee, dogs, etc.. On your desk facing you.

    When you feel conflicted about quoting a fee, look at that photo. You’ll get over it.

    Often, in cases where your client truly can’t afford your fee, everyone is better off if you give the client the number to your local legal aid organization. They need clients to keep funding and keep their jobs. And that way, you avoid the risk of either 1) doing the work and not getting paid; or 2) resenting your client because you’re working for a fee that is far below what you should have fairly charged.