Solo Newsletter

Volume 10, no. 2

When Your Client’s Named Michael or Martha

By jennifer j. rose

The perfect case. The imperfect client. The client’s fine as far as the attorney-client relationship goes, but there’s only one hitch: the client will be a terrible witness. You’re not even sure the client should be sitting up there beside you at the counsel table.

Every good lawyer knows how to size up a client and the client’s cause before accepting the work, avoiding those on a scorched earth mission, those who can’t pay, the disobedient, and those with the markings of trouble. But how often do we size up those clients who should never set foot in a courtroom? All that time spent perfecting the theory of the case, fitting the facts to the law, and honing your trial skills can go down the drain if the client isn’t the right candidate for trial. A client’s personality and style can sabotage the perfect case.

Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson may have star qualities, but they’re hardly the kind of litigant who wins the hearts and minds of a judge and jury. And they’re not alone among the ranks of clients who just don’t do well in court. Drama queens, prima donnas, liars, smart alecks and comedians, debaters, and armchair lawyers fare just as badly as the slick and the bitter. Plenty of perfectly good clients simply lack the kind of presentation skills required to communicate effectively with a judge and jury.

Clients who stutter, who can’t hear, who butcher their native tongue of English as if it’s a foreign language, who have the I.Q. of a radish or who lay claim to every malady in the DSM-IV ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) often communicate more effectively in court than a radio talk show host. It’s more than merely revealing sympathetic traits; it’s a matter of playing a chord that appeals to others.

Some litigants simply take to training better than others, knowing when to shed their out-of-court persona. You’ve given the client every handout imaginable about How to Act in Court, you’ve rehearsed every word of the client’s testimony, and you’ve even told the client that the Hermes purse, tattoo, and sidearm aren’t courtroom-appropriate accessories. The client remains convinced that the judge is part of the Evil Empire and that jurors require some kind of entertainment to make up for missing Wheel of Fortune. And yet you know deep down inside that this is the very client who will alienate everyone.

Even the best legal talent can’t always overcome some of these clients. And that’s when it’s time to really encourage settlement, explaining to the client how their nuances risk negative outcomes. And when there’s no other choice but to sally forth to court with the Client No One Understands, take a deep breath, an aspirin, and hope that this client will be one of those who blossoms under pressure. Sometimes the worst clients will surprise you.

jennifer j. rose is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine and can be reached at jenniferrose@abanet.org.

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