By Robert A. Clifford
Clifford Law Offices
Wrapping up a monthlong trial in St. Louis for a catastrophically injured client leads me to reflect on my 30-plus years of representing people in personal-injury cases. In particular, I reflect on the clients who I have represented — the people behind the case titles.
Some have been high-profile figures, others have come from unfortunate backgrounds. All of them are decent, hard-working people. Tragedy doesn't spare anyone — it strikes without pattern or reason. Whether discovery and trial preparation play out in the media or privately between one's lawyer and the client, the same duty is owed to do one's best.
So many times clients come to my firm lost, crushed, confused, hurt, needy. Trying to walk them through what is their darkest hour in a personal injury or wrongful death action is always a difficult task because you know the end result isn't going to put the person or the family back together. No matter the number of zeroes in a verdict or settlement, at the end of the day, the person is left with the physical, mental and emotional scars, left to put his or her life back together as best he or she can with what a jury or settlement check allows.
Everyone I have known would gladly return that check if it were possible to turn the clock back before the negligent or reckless conduct occurred. Instead, I find more people asking for relief beyond what a court can decree.
Take, for example, the case of a plane going down and a father's entire family being wiped out. His wife and daughter, on a trip to visit grandma and grandpa, get their seats changed on the return flight — only to have tragedy strike. Their previous assigned seats held survivors of the crash on the runway. They didn't survive.
The money damages meant little to the successful businessman. What he sought was a statement of admission from the most culpable defendant and an explanation of what happened. If that meant a protracted discovery process and, ultimately, a trial, so be it. In the end, he got what he wanted; the airlines did not want to relive all of the details in a courtroom and be judged by a jury. In addition, he received additional money to set up a bereavement center at the local children's hospital.
Clients have evolved over the years. Where one time a judgment may have been more than sufficient to satisfy lawsuit expectations, clients now expect so much more from the system. They want laws changed. They want safety measures put in place. They want those who are accountable to understand the gravity of what they have done and be assured what happened to them will not happen again.
The recent phenomenon of the mass tort goes against the grain, although in many instances it may provide the only avenue of justice for a recovery when a drug or other product gravely injures thousands of people. But the traditional service provided in a normal attorney-client relationship is lost.
How many of you have seen pitches by what appear to be law firms, but which are, in fact, clearinghouse marketing companies that try to find cases and assign them to out- of-state firms? Multiple e-mails that sneak through spam filters ask if you have had a DePuy hip replacement, a defective transvaginal mesh implanted or birth control or other medications that have potentially harmful and unwanted side effects. It is not to say that these people don't have cases — oftentimes they have legitimately been injured by the negligence of defendants. It is the way that clients are being corralled. If you, indeed, have answered one of these "sales" pitches, you become bombarded with mailings asking you to sign up with a lawyer you have never met. You may speak to the out-of-state lawyer for but a few minutes about your case and then the contract comes in the mail with multiple reminders to sign up while there is still time.
If you do, that is likely the last time you will speak to a lawyer. You will be ferreted to a paralegal who does the majority of the preparation of the case, handling up to thousands of these matters that are settled en masse. No longer is there a one-on-one relationship with a lawyer, discussing the problems or offering words of sympathy with the legal advice.
Instead, for some, law has become a business that is a mill — churning the cases out almost as quickly as they come in. The object is to collect large numbers of them so the law firm can argue for a larger mass settlement and, ultimately, a larger fee. The thought of trying each case individually just isn't there.
Instead, I would like to offer some tips on how to get and keep clients. First, treat them as individuals. Help them to know their goals and develop their unmet needs. Lawyers are problem-solvers, partly because we are also good at defining the problem. Some clients may need hand-holding every step of the way because they don't understand the system. Remember, that's part of the service.
Above all, communicate with your clients. Although the Internet makes it easy to dash off that e-mail, phone calls are good too. There is no substitute for personal contact. That means giving them the time they need. It is one of the most valued relationships you will have. You have to treat clients the same way you would like to be treated if the roles were reversed. That is a truism for success that will never change.