I have an old car – a “beater,” as some might say. I use it to cart my dog around and other messy errands. I would never put a client in it. The car is an 18-year-old Subaru Outback which I got from one of my daughters when she moved to Washington and no longer needed it. The car is in decent shape and it only has about 155,000 miles, but still it is an old car, kind of beat up and ugly with basically little value.
Last weekend I was in the car running errands. After one stop I got back into the car and started it. When I tried to put the car in gear it would not come out of park. My immediate thought was that I had some serious transmission issue – and trying to fix the transmission would simply not be worth it. I could certainly live without the car, but it would be inconvenient. That was a sinking feeling as I really kind of like this old car. I got out the owner's manual and found that the car not coming out of park was specifically addressed. It told me how to unlock the gearshift but ominously stated that the car then needed to be taken to the nearest Subaru dealership immediately. This admonition was not exactly reassuring, but at least I didn’t have to have the car towed.
On Monday morning, I opted to take the car to a gas station near my house. I had used them a few times before, but my regular mechanic – who I really like - was on the other side of town and sometimes they are booked up. I explained the situation to the guy manning the desk. He nodded gravely and said they would look at the car, but he could not make any promises. He assured me that he would call me. That afternoon, they left me a voicemail saying my car was ready. I was shocked – and a little apprehensive. When I called back, they explained that one of the brake lights was out and as a safety measure old Subarus “locked” the car in park. The total charge was $40 to replace the bulb and clean out some corrosion. My car was back in action and I was thrilled.
So, what does this tale have to do with lawyers and clients? More than you might think. Being a lawyer (and not a mechanic), I was clueless. They knew it too. I came to them with a problem for which I needed their expertise. They could have done more, probably could have replaced a few more parts which were undoubtedly a bit worn considering the age of the car. Had I been presented with a bill for two or three hundred dollars I would have still been okay with it and happy that I didn’t have to get rid of my dog-hauling vehicle. I suspect the mechanics knew that too, but regardless they did the right thing: They put the interests of their customer first.
As lawyers, people come to us with a problem for which they need help. They are not lawyers and, just like I was, they are often clueless as to what can or should be done. They trust us to do what is in their best interests. And we are obligated to do so. The bar rules in every jurisdiction tell that to lawyers quite explicitly. However, one does not really need to review the applicable Code of Professional Responsibility to know what to do. Just like my mechanic did, you should instinctively put the interest of your client – the “customer” – first. Always.
The mechanic up the street earned my trust. I will keep using them and I will recommend them to anyone who asks. Doing right by your clients/customers is perhaps the best marketing tool there is. It is also just the right thing to do.