Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
On shows like Candid Camera and Punk’d, pranks are pulled on people for laughs.
But when lawyers get fooled, the results – unhappy clients, botched cases, State Bar complaints, malpractice claims – are usually tragic, not comic.
Consider the client who says “it’s about the principle of the matter, not the money.” Or the one who assures you the check is in the mail.
Or the Nigerian prince who wants to park a few million dollars in your bank account just for the fun of it.
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Everybody plays the fool sometimes, sings The Main Ingredient. There’s no exception to the rule.
But by taking a few simple steps – such as keeping your eyes open, your mind fresh and your passwords protected – you can minimize your odds of becoming the butt of an unfunny joke.
Here are six proven ways to avoid booking passage on the “Ship of Fools:”
Turn away bad clients … “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am?” It is easy to identify good clients. They show up on time, follow our advice and pay their bills. It is harder to spot lousy ones. Often they come disguised as ordinary, reasonable people. But they typically lack at least one of the following qualities, says the blog Work Made for Hire: (a) adequate money for the project; (b) adequate time for the expected result; (c) an understanding of what you do; and (d) respect for your professionalism. “If your client doesn’t have one of these very important elements, guess what? Things won’t go well.”
Use written engagement agreements … “What a Fool Believes.” Some legal matters are so simple and routine that there is no need to confirm the specifics of representation in writing, right? Wrong. “Regardless of what service you provide, you should always have an agreement detailing what you are going to offer and what you are getting in exchange,” says Above the Law. “[I]t would be imprudent and ironic for a professional who encourages people to get it down on paper at every turn to decline to use their own agreement with their own clients.”
Don’t confuse professionalism with friendship … “Chain of Fools.” Sure, we’re all in this together. And yes, our Rules of Professional Conduct tell us to be courteous and respectful to our colleagues and the courts. But when you put on your lawyer hat your primary duty is to your client. Your role is advocate and adviser. This might require you to cross swords with someone who is otherwise a buddy. No problem. Plenty of time for palling around after hours.
Follow your own terms of engagement … “The Fool on the Hill.” Set the right tone with your clients by doing what your engagement agreement says you will do. “If you lay down the rules and then don’t follow through on something, you’ll teach them that you weren’t serious about that rule – and probably not about the rest,” writes Attorneys Master Class President Dustin Cole. “The most important rules are the ones about billings and payments. Let those slip and they’ll learn that you’ll continue to work for them even when they’re not paying.”
Have a light heart … “Dancing Fool.” Don’t take things personally. Don’t waste time on lost causes. Don’t carry your problems home. Ask yourself: am I having fun yet? “A file that you dread quickly becomes a daily burden, taking much of the joy out of the practice of law,” according to ABA GP/Solo. “If you can honestly answer ‘This is something I want to do,’ then your odds of success and your odds of enjoying the process are very high.”
Be an eagle … “Poor Little Fool.” A Native American legend tells of an eagle egg that was placed in a chicken’s nest. The eagle was hatched and raised alongside the other chicks. Naturally it grew up thinking it was a chicken. It stayed on the ground, clawed the dirt and pecked at bugs. One day it looked up and saw a mighty eagle soaring high in the clouds. Oh, to be such a magnificent creature, it thought. To be ruler of the sky instead of a foolish chicken like me.
So be a client-screening, agreement-writing, light-hearted, professional eagle.
Add a little common sense – and you “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.