November 09, 2004 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Question: “I need your help in explaining to my brother his responsibilities when dealing with our family attorney. He blames everyone for his problems, schedules appointments and then cancels them, and is avoiding some very real legal problems. We all read your column, and have read it for years and I would like to call you and put him on the phone, if it isn’t too much of a bother. He will do what you advise.”
That e-mail came in from Dottie, and of course I replied that she was welcome to call at any time. Within seconds of hitting send, the phone rang and it was my reader and brother (James) on an extension phone. I had him tell me what was going on. He was quick to demonstrate something that drives attorneys — and responsible family members — crazy. I would like to stand as a lesson for others in what lawyers need and expect from their clients.
“Yes, I realize it is our family’s attorney, but he treats me like I am not very responsible,” James said. “I have had some real problems these past few months getting my bills paid on time, but this gives him no right to be nasty to me just because I rescheduled a few appointments with his office and objected when his secretary wanted me to pay in cash before an office consultation.”
Completely without fault
It did not take long before I could tell why his attorney was more than a little upset with him. His life is a mess, and I could not escape from the immediate conclusion that James is living proof that, unlike fine wine, some people may never mature, regardless of age.
“So tell me, what brought you into the lawyer’s office in the first place?” I asked. To that relatively simple question, James wondered if I had a few minutes. Luckily it was noon, and the office was closed, so I had plenty of time. After listening to his life history, all the things that had happened to him, he came to the point: “I was married for less than two years and did not file any papers, so the divorce went as a default against me. My ex-wife promised to return a number of items — photos and personal things — but never did. I want them back. That’s why I set up the appointment with the lawyer, for advice on what to do. But things came up and I had to rescheduled a few times, and then when I went in, they required payment before I was allowed to see the lawyer. Is that right?”
Payment before the consultation
“You were lucky that the attorney let you to come in after re-scheduling so many times,” I said. “If it were me, I would have told you to go somewhere else. Instead of appreciating your attorney’s tolerance and patience, are you telling me that he did something wrong? You can hang up on me now if you want, but just ask yourself this question: ‘What kind of message about yourself — about the correctness of your legal position — does a client send to the lawyer with behavior that others see as irresponsible?’ Had you thought of that?” I asked.
James was silent.
At this stage in our discussion, it was clear that he might have a legitimate complaint about certain items, but to me (and his sister) he seemed to lack the experience or common sense to resolve it.
While there are divorces that can go as a default — you are served with the court papers and just do nothing — in most cases there are items of property or bills that need to be taken care of and therefore a response should be filed. So, when James allowed the divorce to proceed as a default — doing nothing to protect his own rights — and then behaves like a fourth-grader who blames the dog for eating his homework, any attorney consulted would wonder if the client is all that serious.
Responsible, mature clients do influence the way attorneys look at them. That also applies to paying bills on time. It is human nature. Where a client — or the child of a client — is reluctant to pay for professional services at the beginning of an attorney-client relationship, this raises doubt as to payment later.
I asked Dottie if she wanted me to speak with the attorney. She thought that would be a great idea, and so I phoned him. “I have represented this entire family for years,” he explained, “and most of them are responsible, but James is the baby of the family and somehow never really grew up. It was a classic use of enabling behavior, when everyone jumped in to help him instead of allowing natural consequences be the best teacher. I have been in this business too long to hold out much hope for anyone in his situation to ever mature. My office will not hold his hand, and that’s probably why he is so upset,” I was told.
The lessons of this one case have broad application, and not just the legal profession. While it is true that clients, patients or customers deserve to be treated with respect, they must treat others with respect as well. It begins with keeping appointments and paying your bills on time.
Does this mean that James should find a new lawyer? I do not think so, and if anything, he should do everything possible to prove himself to be a worthy client. There is great value in a long term professional relationship, and clearly that’s what we have here. While the concept of a family doctor may be fast fading, they still exist. Across the generations, your family’s lawyer will be much more than a skilled legal professional for mom and dad, brother and sister, grandchildren.
In a real way, we become your friend.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.