I haven't had much to write about lately, but one thing came up lately that might be worth writing about.

I got a new client at the beginning of last week. His case is very serious, he is facing a lot of time. And it's not as if he's new to the "system," he's done quite a bit of prison time in the past. Some clients who have done time "get it" - they get what their case is worth, they get how the sentencing guidelines work. Some clients, despite their past, are shocked (or act shocked) that they're going to get jail this time. Really? You got jail time or prison on your last ten arrests, but you really thought you would finally community service or something this time?

Anyway, I met this new client early last week. I told him he was facing time, I told him what I thought I could do to help, I told him what some of his options were, I told him what was likely to happen. I spoke to his family, I did quite a bit of research relevant to his case, I negotiated with the prosecutor again and again.

At the end of the week, I met up with the client again. I told him what I had worked on during the few days since we last saw each other, I told him that I had spoken to his wife, I told him what I had found that might help his case, and I told him what the prosecutor had said which might be bad for his case.

When I got to the bad news, the client was very upset. Which, to some extent, I'm used to. I deliver bad news sometimes, I understand that I'm the messenger.

When a client is upset, there are a few tactics that I usually take to help the situation. One is to try to agree, "Yes, you're right, it's not fair, I get that, but the best thing we can do right now is focus on our next step..." Another is to try to explain the situation and reason with the client, "Look, you did three years on your last drug sale. Now they've caught you again, the prosecutor thinks the sentence has to be more than three years this time. With every arrest, the punishment is probably going to get worse." Sometimes I just sit back and let them vent it out - some people just need to have their say, and they have no one else to say it to. If I sit and listen for five minutes or ten or twenty, they might be able to focus on their case once they get it out of their system.

But with this client, this week, I didn't really have the chance to do any of those things. He was just screaming absolute profanity at me.

And, maybe it was me. Maybe I was overtired and overworked and fighting a cold for a week. Maybe if I was feeling sharper, more on top of my game, I could have talked some sense into him, or waited it out while he vented. But I didn't.

I walked out of the pen, and at the next opportunity, asked the judge to assign a new lawyer to my client. I was upset and exhausted, and I just quit. The judge doesn't know me well yet, but he agreed to assign a new lawyer since it was early in the case.

But getting off the case didn't really make me feel any better. I felt like a quitter. I know what I did was fine ethically, but I know that personally, I could have done better. I felt disappointed in myself.

I know it's not a big deal. In the scheme of things, it's a small percentage of my cases. And I got rid of a difficult client and a serious case. I should have felt good, at least for that. But Friday night, I couldn't sleep, I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking I could have sat back down and said... well, there's probably a lot of things I could have said. I don't know if they would have made a big difference.

I feel like I'm beyond the point in my career where I get upset over things clients say, I think I'm at the point where I can turn any disagreement in a positive direction. And it's not that I couldn't with this client, it's that I didn't make the effort.

Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow I will try harder, and do better. That's all I can do.


  1. I say keep your head up. Maybe you're at the point in your career where you can trust your instincts -- to know when to get out before it gets so toxic that it hurts the client and the judge won't let you out. You know that you're going to show your colleagues and the judges that this won't be a habit for you. Trust your own judgment. Good luck with the next client.

  2. For whatever it's worth (from a civil plaintiff's attorney who deals mostly with victims, and only appears in criminal cases when the boss can't/doesn't want to make it), I don't think it's your fail.

    Walking away from one.more.*ssh*le was the best thing for you to have done for your sanity - for a lot of reasons. Sure, no one likes to quit (or be perceived as quitting) but doing your job, you take far more abuse than the ordinary human - from the courts, the DAs, your clients - it's all stacked up against you. If you have one less jerk screaming profanity at you, all the better. You followed your gut and you may have dodged even greater abuse further down the line.

    Tomorrow you will be back to the same people heaping the same crap on you as you try to do your part for the system. Give yourself props for saying "enough" and setting boundaries.

    All IMHO, of course. :)

  3. We all have days like this. No matter how long you have done this job, you will still have these days. You can't beat yourself up over it. You will never be the perfect lawyer for every client. The bad thing about not being able to pick you cases/clients is that sometimes you and a client are not a good fit. You can't always interact in a positive way with every client. It isn't anything to get down about. You are still doing a great job!

  4. Interesting how different PD practice is across the land. You do not get to "lawyer shop" out here. If the client hates you and wants a new attorney, he will not get one unless he can convince the judge there's a huge conflict and that almost never happens. And there is absolutely no means by which I can get off a particular case unless I have a conflict. I'm not sure what you mean by this "being ethical". I'm not criticizing you. It's always better to have a good relationship with every client. But I don't think it's unethical to represent a client you don't particularly like or get along with.

  5. Don't be too hard on yourself. My wife is a therapist; she gets paid to put with a lot of stuff like that. Some days, you just can't.

  6. Anonymous - I don't think most judges would have let me off the case much later than this, and certainly not just for a "personality conflict." This judge happened to be pretty easy going, and I think the fact that the case was only a week old was a big factor. I also think this judge has a little bit of a heart (or a big heart, for a judge) and saw that I was upset by this client.

    As far as ethics, my point was that even knowing there was nothing ethically wrong with asking to be relieved and then getting relieved, I still felt, like I wrote, disappointed in myself. I don't think it's unethical to stay with a difficult client (in fact, I think it's commendable), but I don't think there's anything unethical about asking to be replaced either.

    I suppose if the judge had said no, I would have had to go back in there and find a way to repair things with this client. And I'm sure that, as unpleasant as it might have been, it was probably doable, at least to the extent required.

    I guess I was just beating myself up a little over taking the easier way out.

  7. i don't think YOU had anything to do to repair the relationship. the client is the one who flipped his shit and went off on a tirade against you. it sounds like you just stepped out of a verbally abusive situation. at the next meeting with the client he might be civil or he might continue being ridiculous. it's good that you can ask to be removed and know that another pd will be taking the case. don't feel badly----you've done what was healthy and right for you even if it was just at that moment particularly right. if you can't take care of yourself and make sure you are ok you'll have a really hard time helping others----that's the advice i got at least!

    do you ever wonder if these outbursts happen at times because you're female? when i worked in the system i often found myself faced with treatment that i just passed off as coming from someone who was agitated but then a male coworker would mention how they noticed the guy treated me differently than when he worked with the same guy earlier. that pissed me off because even though i know discrimination still exists i'd like to think it less prevalent than it is...

  8. "Momma said there'd be days like this, there'd be days like this my momma said..."
    I'm sure it bothers you because you're a good attorney and can't help caring about the client - no matter how stupid he is. It's his loss. Doing defense, some I walked away for money reasons, some for stress reasons. Some I wanted to walk away from for both reasons but other considerations prevented it. So just let me say, I enjoy prosecution much better.

  9. When I have a client who especially succeeds at getting under my skin, I try to step back and see why this particular person has upset me. Most clients find it very difficult to perturb me, so those who break through are worth noting.

    Generally, I find that the upsetting clients either remind me of someone I love (or hate), or have in some way triggered personally difficult emotions or memories. What seems to make for the most emotionally difficult clients isn't what they or their cases are about, but rather what connections they happen to have with my own neurosis or pain.

    In other words, some clients find (accidentally or on purpose) ways to pull my strings. Figuring out where those strings are attached is really much more informative and constructive than getting wrapped up in the resulting emotional upset or feelings of failure themselves. Not being reactive to those clients is part of the boundary setting process, too.

    Over time I've come the conclusion that getting beyond my immediate reactive response to the irritation, and confronting my underlying suffering directly is an important step in handling this challenging career.

    Amongst career criminal law practitioners, I've observed a trend towards either personal life collapse(divorce, alcohol/chemical dependency, depression, gambling, etc.) or towards sainthood. I think the difference between the two has to do with whether we surrender to the anguish our clients bring to the party, or instead engage that anguish honestly and gently within ourselves.

    For some reason, we are so much better at providing care, compassion, and skillful response to others than to ourselves. The irony is that seeing our "failures" clearly is the starting point for finding where our own need for compassion and healing lies.

    The practice of caring for ourselves is infinitly more difficult and intimate than the practice of caring for others. But integrating both into our legal practice is what will produce the most effective lawyering for our clients, and maybe move us a step or to towards sainthood ourselves.

  10. You should not beat yourself up for letting it get to you and letting the case and client go. If you have as many difficult clients as I do (and I am sure you have more than me), sometimes there is a limit to how many of them you can carry at one time.

    Even if it was just because you were tired or worn out at that point in time, there is nothing wrong with realizing you may have reached your limit.

    As for the comments about "lawyer shopping" or whether it is ethical or your responsibility to continue to represent a person you do not like, it is also about standing up for yourself and refusing to be treated in such a manner.

    Many, if not most, of the indigent clientele does not understand or conform to the standards of civility or propriety to which we professionals adhere. However, how much verbal abuse must a person endure, and at what point should we be permitted to withdraw as a result?

    I myself withdrew from a case last month for a similar reason. The client refused to be civil, and at the point he refused to curb his behavior and informed me that he could speak to me in whatever manner he chose, I moved to withdraw and he was given new counsel. I know our judges are very lax by comparison to yours (rural area), but I do not consider it quitting so much as refusing to accept abuse from a client when you consider the thanklessness of this job in general.

  11. I would not feel too bad. Some times, that is the best thing you can do for both you AND the client. Plus, you're a human being and, at the end of the day, you're not required, even as a PD, to work in intolerable situation.

    Though I have not had the need to ask for a new attorney for the clients, I am greatly aided by the fact that I only do appeals and I don't really have face-to-face contact with clients in prison. Letter-writing requires more energy from the client and is a more deliberate process.

    But even in that context, there were a couple of clients who were abusive to the point of truly testing my patience.

  12. Okay- you can not be down on yourself because you are my new hero. Your blog rocks and, by default, you must rock. Seriously.

  13. I agree with the May 31 Anonymous - your blog rocks and you rock.

    Don't second-guess your decisions, especially when they are irrevocable anyway. Some "honest and gentle" engagement (per another Anonymous response) is definitely important. Decide whether what you did was right for you, understand why you did it, and have a reasoned, considered response ready for the next time. Even if it is exactly the same response, you'll lose a lot less sleep over it if you know why you responded that way.