Fair is fair is fair is fair: First, I analyzed what drives partners nuts. Next, I revealed what drives associates nuts. Third, I suggested how secretaries could drive their bosses nuts. Which (unless my imagination improves) leaves only today’s column: How to drive clients nuts!
How can you drive clients nuts? Let me count the ways.
First, remember that it’s really not the client’s case; it’s yours! The client retained you. You’re tending to the thing. If you win, you’re going to link to the decision from your on-line firm bio. So take the case and run with it!
When journalists call, answer their questions. (Make sure they spell your name, and your firm’s name, correctly in the published piece. Free publicity can’t hurt.) That silly little client surely trusts you to handle the press properly and, if the client doesn’t, the client’s wrong.
In fact, don’t limit yourself to handling the press. Figure out what an appropriate settlement should be, and then move the process along on your own. Call opposing counsel and tell her that you haven’t yet run this idea past your client, but you think the case should settle for 500 grand. Tell her you’ll recommend that amount if she’ll recommend that amount, and see what happens. The client will be pleased that you evaluated the case and sped the process without bothering the client at all. That’s both convenient and cost-effective: You’ll be a hero! (It’s quite unlikely the client was thinking more broadly than you are, considering the effect of settling this case on business issues, or other cases, or the like. After all, it’s your case. Don’t be a weenie; you handle it!)
Great! We’ve pushed the client one step closer to the brink of insanity. What else can we do to nudge the client over the edge?
Here’s an idea: Never volunteer information about a case to the client. Look: If the client wants to know something about a case, the client will ask. You might be wasting time — and the client’s money — if you reported to the client about things the client ultimately didn’t care about. Don’t run that risk!
Clam up! Your policy should be complete silence about all cases. When the client asks, then you can speak, but be sure to give as little information as possible. Shorter conversations (or e-mails), after all, mean less time charged to the case, which means lower bills. So don’t volunteer anything! Be like a deponent: Provide the narrowest possible truthful answer to the client’s questions. If the client asks the right question, the client will be rewarded. If the client doesn’t ask the right questions, that’s the client’s fault!
That’ll push the client another step toward insanity. But there’s still another step or two to the ledge. How can you cover that territory?
Ah! Change your assessment of the value of a case for no reason at all! The value of a case naturally evolves as you investigate facts, undertake discovery, get rulings from courts, and the like. So the client will understand if your evaluation of a case changes over time for reasons that you explain. To drive a client nuts, you’ll have to make your valuation of a case change for no reason at all.
On Monday, tell the client the case should settle for 250 grand. On Tuesday, tell the client the case isn’t worth a penny. On Wednesday, tell the client that the plaintiffs will be demanding $30 million at trial; you view the case as 50/50; and the client should therefore pay $15 million to eliminate litigation risk. On Thursday, move the price back down — maybe 100K is a good spot.
If at all possible, do this late in the litigation. Better yet: Ask the client if it has taken a reserve in the case. If so, ask the amount of the reserve. And then send the client something in writing explaining that the probable and estimable value of the case is entirely different from what the client reserved. That will prove to the client that you understand its process for taking litigation reserves, and everyone loves a lawyer who understands the client’s business!
How else can you drive a client nuts? I’ve mentioned a few of my pet peeves in previous columns, so I’ll just rehash a couple here: The client has almost surely memorized the case number for each of the hundreds of cases it’s defending. So, when you get an e-mail from the court with a “subject” line of “CV-12-0940,” just forward that e-mail to the client. The client will instantly know that you’re talking about the Iago case, so that will make the client’s life easier. Don’t explain in the text of your e-mail what the court said in the order. Just write: “Please see attached.” The client won’t know the urgency of what’s attached, whether the client won or lost, or the implications of the ruling. That’s great! Everyone likes a little suspense in their life!
Don’t read your bills before you send them out! You’re a great lawyer. The client trusts you. Nobody much cares what those silly time entries say. So let your lawyers slap together the usual incomprehensible time entries, run the bill at the end of the month, and send it off to the client unread. A half hour for “E to HJ”? No problem. Nearly a week “working on MIL”? Sounds right to me. After all, if the client has questions, the client can call to ask you about the bill, and you can figure it out then.
Ahhhh . . . . I feel like I’ve finally made my contribution to the legal world. Associates driving partners nuts. Partners driving associates nuts. Lawyers driving their clients nuts. Secretaries driving the whole lot of ‘em nuts. What more could I do?
Oh, yeah. Clients driving outside counsel nuts!
Oops. Wait a minute. Been there; done that. I must be losing my mind.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.