5 Douchebag Things Clients Ask Lawyers to Do
After practicing law for more than a decade, I’ve begun to bristle, just a little bit, at the accusations that non-lawyers typically throw at us. Hollywood doesn’t help, having only two types of “lawyer” caricatures: rich, Type-A a-holes, or poor, disheveled little guys operating out of a broom closet filled with cartons of paper. You can guess which type is the “good” guy. In the eyes of the public, we lawyers apparently lie, cheat and steal our way to a lifestyle of expensive European cars, lavish restaurants and penthouse apartments.
The general public's resentment is forgivable, because no one really understands what it is we do, and we seem to charge a lot of money to do it. Most people only ever encounter an attorney when they have reached a low point in their lives – divorce, horrible accidents, getting sued, bankruptcy, death, etc.; and, from the outside, it certainly appears that we swoop in like hungry buzzards to profit off of the misery of others. Plus, I will freely allow that there are plenty of complete douchebags running around with bar cards.
What most people don’t realize is that a big part of our job involves dealing with people who seek us out, and the people who seek us out often expect us to be just as sleazy and douchey as our public reputation makes us out to be. As a result, on a regular basis, we get asked to:
1. Break the Law
We’ve all seen the television shows and movies about lawyers, and the one thing Hollywood loves to point out is attorney-client privilege. In order to protect the rights of the people involved in a case, clients can say anything they want to their lawyer in complete and unbreakable confidence. This is a good thing, because it means that clients don’t have to hide information from their lawyer for fear of it being found out. It allows the lawyer to provide the best representation for his or her client, and it prevents everyone from wasting the Court’s time arguing over matters that turn out later to not be relevant.
How Douchey Clients Try to Abuse This:
Usually, the client just asks us to commit small infractions (most of which would only cost us our license, and maybe carry a 6 month jail sentence), such as hiding evidence. Clients somehow think that, because they can tell me which car trunk the dead hooker was stashed in, I’m also willing to park the car in my back yard to hide it from the police.
Over the years, I’ve been asked to help clients commit fraud, violate their parole or probation terms, hide drugs/guns/money/contraband, and hide funds from creditors. I was once asked to overcharge on a legal fee, and then kick back the extra money to my client under the table so that he didn’t have to report it on his taxes.
More than a few clients over the years have asked me to help them commit benefits fraud by helping them falsely obtain social security disability benefits or workers’ compensation benefits. One client even gave me the number of an out of state doctor who would willingly write up whatever medical report I needed (surprise, he was not an actual doctor). Another client who was about to be fired for embezzling money from her workplace wanted me to help her cook up a racial discrimination case and, her words, "take them to the cleaners."
2. Work for Free.
Hiring a lawyer is expensive. A run-of-the-mill civil case can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 in attorneys fees by the time it’s over, and more than that if there is a protracted trial or appeals. Add in court costs, expert witness fees, court reporter services - you get the picture. Few people can afford to spend $50,000 on an attorney, especially if they’ve hired us because they are about to lose their job or their house, or they were in an accident and are facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
To get around this, the bar rules allow lawyers to be creative with our fees. We can charge contingency fees where we get a percentage (usually a third) of anything we recover. We can take payments over time. We can accept credit cards. We can even accept a lien for our fees against real estate, so that we get paid when the client's property sells. We can even barter – I once got an old motorcycle as payment for helping a family with an estate administration. Most of the time, though, we just end up reducing our fee to whatever the client can pay and hope we don’t take a loss on the case.
How Douchey Clients Try to Abuse This:
I have seen clients try every possible method a person can come up with to get out of paying me. In addition to the usual methods of flat-out refusing to pay and writing bad checks, I’ve had clients try all kinds of stupid tricks. One client tried to fire me right before signing a huge settlement agreement with an insurance company, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to collect my 1/3 fee. More than one client has filed a bar complaint after getting a huge recovery, claiming that I had offered to do their case for free, or that I never explained my fees to them in advance (all fee agreements are in writing).
The one that always gets me though is where the client invokes religion. One particular client told me that he had
"prayed about it", and the Lord had told him that he did not have to pay my fee. Because it was unfair. You would not believe how common this is. It’s so bad that I won’t take a case, no matter how good it looks, if the potential client even mentions Christ, God, Church or anything remotely related to religion.
3. Lend Them Money.
As I mentioned above, hiring a lawyer is an expensive proposition. You could put your kid through college for the cost of a civil lawsuit. As a result, it’s not uncommon for a client to run out of money halfway through a case (which is why I started providing proposed litigation budgets to my clients a few years ago, so that they could decide up front whether or not they are going to be able to see the case through). Again, the bar rules come to the rescue – not only can we get creative with our own fees, the law allows us to front the costs of litigation (court fees, expert fees, etc.), and collect them after the case is over. This is often the ONLY way a poor person can get a fair fight against a big corporation with unlimited legal resources.
How Douchey Clients Abuse This:
The one thing we cannot do, but get asked to do on a regular basis, is loan money to the client. It is absolutely forbidden by the bar rules. And with good reason – once your lawyer becomes your creditor, he and you have a conflict of interest. Moreover, the potential for abuse by lawyers is enormous – unscrupulous lawyers could easily pressure clients who are threatened with financial ruin into highly unfavorable terms. Furthermore, it gives the lawyer an incentive to hide the client’s assets from the Court and other creditors, so that he can secure repayment of his own loans.
Not only do I regularly get hit up for loans from my clients, I often get asked to help them obtain predatory “judgment” loans. These are deals in which the loan shark offers to give the client funding while the case is pending – usually just a few hundred or few thousand dollars - in exchange for turning over the rights to collect on the entire judgment or settlement, which might be in the tens of thousands of dollars. I have no idea how these loans are even legal, but I have been asked to help defraud these loan sharks. (No thanks, I like my kneecaps right where they are).
4. Screw Over their Own Families
Divorce and child custody cases are renowned for how nasty and personal they can get. But believe it or not, they aren’t even close to the nastiest type of cases. That honor goes to probate cases. These are the cases in which a family member has died and the ungrateful, greedy heathens to whom they were related immediately engage in all out war over the inheritance. Even where the decedent has a rock-solid will and estate plan, the family will fight like a pack of rabid dogs.
You might be tempted to think that these cases always involve rich people whom we can all assume are dysfunctional a-holes anyway, and that they’re fighting over millions of dollars. But you’d be wrong. Some of the most bitter fights involve cases in which the estate is negligible, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why two middle aged men are litigating over which one of them gets dad’s old fishing poles. When a client calls me to tell me that a family member died and left them in charge of the estate, the first thing I tell them to do is to run as fast as they can to the decedent’s house and change the locks, then call me back. That’s because I have been involved in cases where someone:
1. Had a moving truck at the house to load up the decedent’s property, while he was still alive;
2. Started a fistfight in a funeral home lobby over who would get the decedent’s ashes;
3. Showed up to the funeral wearing a dress that she stole from the decedent’s closet while everyone else was at the hospital.
4. Looted the decedent’s legal papers and hid or destroyed all copies of the will.
Each of these cases involved little to no money. In one case, the decedent died with a mountain of debt, and after the family members looted his house, the man’s widow was left bankrupt with nothing she could sell to pay off any of the debts.
This is the one that gets my hackles up. I’m convinced that Hollywood puts out a movie showing what big fat liars lawyers are every time some producer or director goes through a bad divorce. The fact is that not only are we not allowed to lie, we live under constant fear that something that we said because we believed it at the time will later turn out to not be true. For example, whenever I file something with the court, I have to certify what date I mailed a copy to the opposing attorney. But let’s say it’s 4:55p.m. and I’m mailing out a document and I know that the last mail pickup at my building is at 5:00 p.m. If I certify that I mailed it out that day, I have to spend the next two weeks wondering if I’m going to be called up on disciplinary proceedings if it turns out that it didn’t make the mail pickup, and my certification turns out to be false. That's how much we’re not allowed to lie.
How Douchey Clients Abuse This:
Some clever douchebags figure out fairly quickly that, whenever I stand up in front of the judge to talk, the judge takes me at my word. That’s not because he and I play golf together on the weekend, it’s because he knows that he has my nuts in a vice if I turn out to be fibbing. The douchebag clients will then try to get you to use that forced credibility to lie for them, in court, to the judge. We are asked to lie about everything, from why the client didn’t show up for court, to why they didn’t turn over documents or comply with a court order.
And clients lie to us all the time. About everything. It’s really embarrassing when you find out for the first time, in the middle of trial that they have been lying to you, but it happens all the time. It’s so prevalent that the bar rules require us to investigate our own client’s claims before we take their case. At least, to the extent we can – often, if they’re lying to us, they’re also hiding evidence.
The bizarre part is that the clients who are least likely to lie to us are criminal clients (divorce clients are the most likely). TV and movies like to show pious criminal defense attorneys who say things like, "I don’t want to know if you really committed the crime. It’s just my job to defend your rights." The truth, however, is that criminal clients almost always spill the truth during their initial phone call to your firm.
The call typically goes like this:
"Hello, thank you for calling Dewey, Cheatum and Howe."
Potential Client: “Hi, I just robbed a bank and I need a lawyer."
It’s getting them to shut up that’s the hard part. By the time they hire us, they have often confessed to the police, blabbed about the case to their friends and family, and sought out legal advice from their drug dealer.
Someday, you may find yourself in need of an attorney. I hope it's so that you can start a new business (unless it's yet another gay clown-themed biker bars; we have enough of those already), plan what to do with your billion dollar estate, or adopt a future NBA star. But, if you're reading this article, right now, let's be honest: you're probably going to need one of us to help you out of a more delicate jam. When that happens, try to remember that we're technically officers of the court and that, push come to shove, I'm going to follow the advice of my criminal law professor: "If someone has to go to jail, make sure it's the client and not you."
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