The Old Man’s Words of Wisdom

By William G. Schwab


We are the front line of legal services for the people of this country. We are general and small firm practitioners.

Individuals don’t go to the megafirm. Owners of small businesses go to the lawyers they meet at Lions or Rotary. We are the ones that, like our counterparts the family practitioners in the medical profession, must evaluate, diagnose, and treat or refer. Though I am board certified in business bankruptcy, I consider myself a generalist, since I practice in a rural area and also maintain a general practice. I see people in all kinds of cases. One appointment may deal with the encroachment of a house on the neighbor’s property. The next may be a DUI or car accident. I must evaluate each. When I do, I must constantly revaluate myself. I am not competent in all areas of the law. I recognize that. I have to know my limitations. I have to know when to keep a case, when to refer it, and when to say I can’t help you.

This I something all lawyers must learn on their own. It is not something taught at law school. When you meet a client for the first time, while they are sizing you up, you should be sizing them up. As lawyers, we frequently have to listen closely to our clients, and what they don’t say is as important as what they do say. The client that tells you in the first interview how they want the case handled is one that is best told “I can’t help you.” And don’t refer them to someone else. Why make enemies in the bar needlessly? You don’t want to be known as someone who only refers dogs.

From my experience, being tactful doesn’t help. If you don’t think the “fit” between you and the client won’t work, be upfront and tell the client. I have been known to say that the client wants the best representation possible, but my way wouldn’t work with what they are looking for, and they wouldn’t be satisfied. I cut the interview short. I won’t take the case. Once I say that, it is final, and I won’t take the case no matter what. Once I took a case that I “felt” wouldn’t work because the client talked me into it after I told them it wouldn’t work. It didn’t work, and I lived to regret it. Every time a decision in the case had to be made, the client knew better. A good case ended up in the trash. Trust your gut.

Being comfortable is important, but we don’t grow professionally if we do only the same thing day after day. Challenge yourself within your limits. Keep reading. I read three newspapers each day and about 20 magazines a month. From each I learn things about the law and current trends that I could not learn elsewhere. It keeps me on the forefront of what’s going on in the law and what my clients are going to ask be about. Before you have a case, your clients will ask you about what they read in the paper or Newsweek. You are the authority, so you should at least have a working knowledge of lay law stories in the news.

Being comfortable with the law and yourself makes you a better lawyer and attracts clients. I also makes you a better lawyer.

—William G. Schwab, GPSolo New Lawyer Editor
(an old man who is celebrating over 25 years as a general practice lawyer)

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