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.