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.

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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15 Responses to Eight Words Every Lawyer Should Use Often

  1. Ric Moore says:

    Having a good “spidey sense” is a necessary thing to have. But, it’s a developed sense and not one a person is born with. I didn’t get into trouble until I ignored my own. :) Ric

  2. shg says:

    Funny how a certain type of caller ends the phone call with some variation of “go fuck yourself,” thus providing immediate validation of the intuitive decision not to take the case. Then again, I find that they often begin the call with some variation of “I found you on the internet…”

  3. Anna Durbin says:

    Yes, that spidey sense is important. Now some clients who have mental issues make good clients, but not the ones who are too paranoid or hostile. And some clients are obviously going to be in need of extra hand holding or demanding and must be charged more. Others are going to be the second guessers with the relative who is a lawyer or the client is a lawyer him or herself and cannot listen to good advice. I have learned to stay away from those. Some should not be given your cell phone number, ever, or you will get unnecessary calls at night, on weekends, even if you told them not to.

    I am interested about what you told the students about what you do when you set a fee and the prospective client either (1) asks if you take installments, and/or (2) starts to haggle the amount. And when did you learn those responses?

  4. I had an old boss that would get mad that I would refuse a new client / case because of my “spidey sense” (I called it my “smell test” and “gut check”). “That’s lost income.” he’d say, but I would think of it as “found peace of mind and less hassles.”

    Now that I am my own boss, I have no problem with refusing cases/clients.
    Of course I am a professional private investigator and not an attorney, but alot of the same things apply. It just boggles me though how many people of both professions will take cases (and thus get money) for something that is not warranted, not right, or just plain sleezy.

    Also I can stay out of domestic investigations, which I have found without fail to be more bother/tension/grief than profit.

  5. Thomas Stephenson says:

    Another way to ditch the client: quote them a ridiculously high fee that must be paid up front. This gets rid of the problem, but in a way that lets the prospective client think he’s deciding not to hire you.

    (I suppose you might get in trouble if they can actually afford to pay that fee, but I don’t know that there are too many people out there who are completely unhinged and extremely well-off/liquid.)

  6. I took a consultation the other day wherein I ignored my spidey-sense. The potential client’s first question was “What do you know about government mind-control.” I’ll be heeding my intuitions better after that one.

  7. Mr. B., this is definitely a lesson they’ll never forget. I plan on incorporating it into what I tell Law students at SMU & beyond every chance I get regarding the; “Art of Referring Out 101” & “I Don’t Do Criminal 101”.

    Folks, if you ever find yourself deciding that you aren’t cut out for Criminal Law and take another legal path like say the Divorce / Estate niche and receive a; call, email, smoke signal and/ or a referral regarding Criminal Law, simply tell them you don’t do Criminal but you have a Board Certified Criminal Defense Attorney / Lawyer that you refer out to. Simply pass on a certified colleague’s number with a pre-agreed upon set commission rate.

    *This Anti-Dabbling message was brought to you by a former ‘Client’ of whom was thought to be (passed himself off as) a Real CDL during the; consultation with my poor-ass parents, the following 15 minute jail interview, voir dire proceedings & subsequently at the Defense Table (felony jury trial). Thanks.

  8. David Pemberton says:

    No such luck in Britain, where a lawyer (in the right field, offered a good fee, and with time) has to take the case. Then again, it’s not hard for the lawyer to be ‘busy’.

    • Hmmm? Now that it’s gone global, please allow me to inquire about what I think I’m hearing.

      Are you saying anything similar to – yes, we are allowed to invoke the D.P. “8 – Words of Declination” all depending upon the circumstances regarding ones chosen field, the amount of the fee and schedule? Being allowed to practice / wing it in areas one has little or no knowledge of is grounds for a WTF? Motion in itself but to be forced to Dabble is a pitchfork away from hells bells.

      *Or does the term “right field” mean one has to choose a certain field (niche) and stick with it, therefore, avoiding any Dabbling notions? Thanks.

      • David Pemberton says:

        Er, sorry. British lawyers must take a case. However, the advocate must be able to represent them in the right field (for which they’re trained, so yes, I suppose their niche.) My last bit was just being cynical; if the lawyer doesn’t really want the case, they can wriggle out of it, but if it can be proved they are lying, they can be reprimanded or even struck off.

  9. Nathaniel Tarlow says:

    When I attended TCDLA’s trial lawyers’ college a few years back, there was a collective CLE session entitled “How to Spot a Potential Problem Client.” It was one of the most valuable hours of the entire week.

  10. Mark Draughn says:

    “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that,” is a great answer in a lot of situations besides turning down law clients. There’s little to gain by explaining yourself to strangers, whether it’s an unsettling potential client, a car salesman, or a pushy guy at a bar. It’s rare that you ever owe a stranger any more of an explanation than some variation of Ms. Manners’ “I’m sorry, but I simply can’t.”

  11. Tanner Andrews says:

    My normal response is pretty similar: “I’m sorry, but I don’t do %s”, replacing with whatever type of case is trying to get in my door.

    It’s a great way to avoid dabbling and also to avoid getting seriously into areas I don’t want to approach. Occasionally I’ll also explain that the bar requires lawyers to be competent, and that includes not taking kinds of cases one is not able to handle.

  12. Sir, speaking as a (VOTS) victim of the system directly related to the Art of Dabblerism, I for one am happy to hear that you already practice what’s being preached and since you proclaim to be an ‘Anti-Dabbler’ (the first to actually say it) allow me to congratulate you for doing so publically (& hopefully, it’s for the client’s benefit as well?).

    “Occasionally I’ll also explain that the bar requires lawyers to be competent, and that includes not taking kinds of cases one is not able to handle.” Despite knowing of a certain Divorce / Estate specialist that didn’t get the State Bar memo, can you (anyone) clarify if this is a true statement that can be backed up by a specific Rule and what year this was put in place? Thanks.

  13. If only those Indian lawyers had been shrewd enough to simply say, individually, “Sorry, can’t help you with that”, instead of collectively holding their noses…

    Long live the cab-rank rule !

    (Yes, I am being mischievous)

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