Eight Words Every Lawyer Should Use Often

I got a chance this week to speak to a class at South Texas College of Law about the criminal-defense contract. I shared my standard contract with them, and we had a wide-ranging discussion about getting hired, getting paid, and taking care of clients. One of the subjects that came up was turning down business: how do you know if you shouldn’t take a case, and what do you do? I have developed, and I suspect that most criminal-defense lawyers develop, an intuitive sense for when we shouldn’t take cases. I get myself in trouble when I ignore that intuition. So I listen to it.

(An aside: I also don’t ignore my intuition when it tells me that I’m headed for a dangerous situation in real life. Paying attention to inarticulable messages of danger is one of the most important things people can do to keep themselves safe.)

I got a call from this morning from a guy who had been arrested. But the arrest was false, he explained, because of an earlier incident in which the police had arrested him and broken his arm. Clearly he was aggrieved; as I tried to extract a coherent narrative from him, I got the sense that he was unhinged and looking for a lawyer as a means of wreaking vengeance on those who had done him wrong. There had been one unfortunate incident after another, and even with prompting he was unable to explain the logical connections between the incidents and his immediate need for a lawyer. My “spidey sense” tingled. I told the caller: “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that.”

That is all the explanation that should be needed. You don’t owe anyone a justification for not taking his case. There are a lot of lawyers out there, and nobody is the right lawyer for every case. If you tell someone, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that” and he demands an explanation, be glad that your intuition has been confirmed.

This morning’s caller didn’t demand an explanation. He simply said, “go fuck yourself” and hung up.

I do believe I dodged a bullet.