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The Titanic and the Client Who Never Came Back

by Jay Reeves |

If you want a happier and less stressful Law Life, try not to take everything so personally.

The law, after all, is but a profession. It’s not our identity. It is something we do – usually during daylight hours – and then we go off and do other things.

But still we get our feelings hurt. This can happen when our request is denied, our motion is quashed, our advice is ignored. And it almost always happens when a client chooses another lawyer over us.

To this day, I feel a tug inside when I recall one particular Client Who Never Came Back.

The Looming Iceberg

This was in the mid-80s – a time of big hair, swatch watches and Dirty Dancing – and my solo practice was sinking faster than the Titanic, which had just been discovered south of Newfoundland.

One day I met a lawyer whose business card said he was a Trial Lawyer. And Eureka! My new career path beckoned.

“I’m looking for a trial lawyer,” said one prospective client, a young pharmacy student who had been in a car accident.

“You’ve come to the right place,” I said. “As you can see.”

And indeed, he was holding one of my brand-new business cards, which said so right there – Trial Lawyer – in raised Times New Roman font on 80-pound linen stock. Of course what Trial Lawyer really meant was I’d tried everything else, so why not try this.

It’s Not in the Cards

The initial interview went well. From the start, I sensed a certain chemistry between us. By chemistry I mean that I expounded on the composition and structure of a personal injury claim, and he had no reaction at all.

“Let me think about it,” he said, declining to engage me on the spot. “I’ll get back in touch with you.”

“Here,” I said. “Take some more cards. And this refrigerator magnet with my phone number.”

Over the next weeks, he would call with questions about his case – medical bills, car repairs, the claims process. Each time I was polite and professional. I tried to be helpful. I kept telling him to just sign the engagement agreement and I’d take care of everything.

Soon he stopped calling. Naturally I took the rejection personally. I’d given him my time. I’d given free advice. He didn’t even have the courtesy to dump me in person.

Some time later, at a local bar meeting, I was chatting with a colleague who to my surprise knew the Client Who Never Came Back. She said she had taken his case – to her deep regret – and knew he had previously talked to me.

“You should thank your lucky stars,” said my colleague, shaking her head sadly as she explained how difficult and demanding he’d been, and how things had not ended well. “You really dodged a bullet.”

Shortly thereafter I ordered a new batch of business cards. I decided I was better off being just a regular Attorney at Law.

It’s Not About Me

It’s hard in a service profession like the law not to take things personally. We care about our clients. We want to help them. We put our time and talent – and, even though we may try not to, our emotions – into what we do.

So that when we are treated rudely by a client or colleague – or when things happen that are disappointing or disheartening – it stings. It’s not easy to just shrug it off and soldier on.

But we can’t please everybody. And we’re not responsible for their behavior. All we can do is keep ourselves strong, healthy and secure in the knowledge of our self-worth.

And yet I stumble.

The other day at Harris Teeter, the check-out scanner didn’t recognize my VIC card. Apparently the barcode had worn off, but still. What a slap in the face! I thought I was a Very Important Customer! Now I had to endure the hassle of getting a new card.

“Dad,” said my son, who was with me. “Relax. Just use your phone number.”

How liberating to know the slings and arrows of a harsh world can’t harm us. How empowering to know our real power lies within, not without. How wonderful to step out into the day with confidence, knowing we’ve got this.

Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. He has a new VIC card on his keychain. He misses Patrick Swayze. Want a speaker for your next bar meeting, firm retreat or CLE? Contact jay@yourlawlife.com or 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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