Small Law Firms

The Practice: When It Costs You To Be Honest

He came to the office wanting only one thing: to clear his name by fighting the accusations. They were accusations that were currently civil (and very public) in nature, but could become criminal and administrative. He got my name, and he brought his file and his checkbook. He had his assignment for me, and just wanted a pen.

There was nothing I needed to do. No selling of my qualifications, no answering questions about what I think about other lawyers, no internet marketer to thank. He checked me out, was told the possible amount of fees, and made his decision before walking in the door.

I read his documents, asked a few questions, noted a few things I saw, and then told him he was going to get killed. I explained not only the legal aspects of his case, but the consequences of fighting and losing. I also explained his other options based on things he wanted to do, and why I thought there was another way to go that would put him in a better position to avoid other issues that would surely arise.

He immediately got up and walked out wanted to continue talking.

You may be thinking this is pretty obvious. This is what lawyers do, they give advice to potential clients on the risks and possibilities and let the client make the decision.

But we know that’s not true….

When the client comes in, especially with money, we want the case. Just admit it. If it’s not you, the client is going to hire someone else, so why not just passively nod your head, agree with the client on everything, and say all the wrong right things? You’re here to make a living, and the client wants a lawyer.

But our best work is in being honest with potential clients, even against our financial interest. We live in a world where have to earn any bit of respect we get from the public. They expect us to be manipulative, lying, greedy people. When we resist taking their money, or suggest options that are the right ones to take — and at serious cost savings — they are shocked. By telling them their perception of “how things work” is wrong, and using any experience we have to provide other options — especially when it’s not in our financial interest — we gain a trust that can only serve as a benefit in the long term.

We finally got to the fee discussion. I told him the estimated fee to “fight,” and the one to resolve the matter. The fee to resolve the case would be about 70% less.

After the meeting, the potential client called the referral source, not just to say thank you, but to tell the story.
In the end, this client could do what he wanted. He knew what he wanted to do, and what he was advised to do. What he realized is that what he really wanted was a lawyer who would give him good advice, even at the lawyer’s expense.

I sense I’ll make up that 70% somewhere.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

(hidden for your protection)

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