Passion may be fine for Valentine’s Day, but when it comes to clients a little bit goes a long way.
One example springs to mind. Years ago, an older gentleman came to me complaining about his next-door neighbors. It seems they had built a shed in their backyard that not only encroached on his property but was also such an eyesore that the quality of his life had been irreparably damaged.
- It blocks my view of the sunrise, he said. It has aggravated my ulcer.
Worst of all, the ugly outbuilding had plunged his beloved flower garden into shade.
- My daylilies are my passion, he said, his lower lip trembling. And now they’re all dying.
I nodded sympathetically and took copious notes. This was back in Charleston, when I fancied myself the champion of dyspeptic gardeners. So I signed him up, then sat back and waited for my mother to call so I could deliver the good news that my caseload had just doubled.
A Shed To Call Home
It turned out wildflowers weren’t my client’s only passion. He also had a passion for photography, land surveying and legal research. Over the next few days he bombarded me with pictures, plats and plaintiff’s exhibits. He assured me the case was a slam-dunk and that he had already done the hard work.
Then there was his passion for talking. This was an earlier time, when people communicated through large rotary devices plugged into the wall. My new client called first thing every morning and last thing every afternoon. He called more often than my mother.
Of course I quickly realized I had been hired by a cranky old guy with too much time on his hands. And the thing was, the shed was not hideous at all. It was a lovely, Tudor-style mini-barn with cedar siding and a cute little porch. This was in contrast to my client’s overgrown, untended meadow filled with scalloped tires and rusted car parts.
But still, there was the matter of the six-inch encroachment. So I fired off a demand package that included dozens of clear, cogent and convincing attachments. Much to my surprise, the neighbors capitulated without so much as a whimper. They simply jacked up their quaint Tudor barn and moved it all the way over to the far side of their lot where it could not be seen by my client. They even planted new grass in the old location.
Naturally, when my client called the next day I expected him to be thrilled. But no, he was grumpier than ever.
- All they did was create a nuisance for their other neighbor, he said. And what about their barking dog and trespassing children and the rock music they play at all hours of the night? What are you going to do about that?
- Excuse me, I said, as my other phone line flashed. I’ve got another call.
It was my mother to the rescue.
Passion is No Ordinary Word
Later I was venting to my friend Nick, the wisest lawyer this side of Ladson. He just shook his head, pulled Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary off the shelf and read the following:
“Passion: a strong and barely controllable emotion about someone or something; a powerful feeling that can make us act in a reckless or dangerous manner.”
A light bulb went off in my brain. Up until then, I had thought of passion as an unequivocally wonderful quality, which it sometimes is. But other times, it can make us do dumb things.
My client might well have been passionate about daylilies. But a greater passion was his dislike of his neighbors – and that was nothing I wanted to get involved with.
Later I would learn to detect other signs of potentially misguided passion, such as when a client says, “It’s not about the money.” Or, “It’s the principle of the matter.” Or, “What I want is revenge.”
These are all red flags that suggest bad tidings are on the horizon.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned to stop and smell the wildflowers. I especially like Southern sundrops, with their sweet smell and delicate yellow petals. They grow in lovely abundance here in the Carolinas, even in the shade of a backyard shed.
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.