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Client Wisdom Requires No Advanced Degree

In a couple of weeks I will have been practicing law for 34 years. April 1st is the actual anniversary date – and I suppose there are those who would say that is fitting. At this point, my personal practice is almost exclusively devoted to representing veterans and military families in medical malpractice cases nationwide. However, for nearly three decades I defended doctors and other healthcare providers in malpractice cases brought against them here in Virginia. I don’t know how many doctors and nurses I represented, but it was a lot and I tried well over 100 medical malpractice jury trials – and there are few, if any, lawyers who can match that number. While I don’t even accept such cases any longer, occasionally I am contacted by an old client seeking assistance from me. If I can, I will certainly try to help them.

Last week, I got just such a call. The relatively young doctor is foreign-trained and has a thick accent, and it was clear to me from the start that she is also very smart and a good doctor. Originally, she came to me about three years ago. I am not sure how she found me. It was a screwy situation, but sadly one that is not so uncommon anymore:  Her employer and its insurance carrier were trying to throw her under the bus in a malpractice case relating to a patient’s death. I reviewed the case and it was clear to me that the blame should not be pinned on her. I tried every trick in my book to extricate her from the situation – and in the process irritated an insurance carrier that had sent work to our firm and really irritated the lawyer that that carrier had hired, a lawyer I had known and actually liked for a long time. I would like to say that my efforts were brilliantly successful and that the fee the doctor paid me was well worth it for her, not to mention the bridges I burned. Sadly, that was not the case. My efforts were for naught. I couldn’t help her and she ended up taking a fall for a death that was plainly not her fault. Hence, I was a little surprised when I heard from her last week.

Initially, I tried to send her to one of my colleagues who was much more experienced than I am with regard to the regulatory issue facing her. I was flattered by her coming to me, but I really tried to dodge it, albeit to no avail. She wanted me to handle it personally because she “trusted” me and I had told her the truth in the earlier case. I agreed to do so and with my colleague’s help we will do what we can.

At the same time this was going on, I got a call from a new client in one of our malpractice cases against the VA. Like many of our clients, the veteran lived in a small town in what we might now call the “rustbelt.”  He probably didn’t have much more than a high school education and his employment history was a mixed one. He was kind of gruff, but struck me as a straight shooter. He wanted to know what his case was worth. This is a common question and it is entirely understandable. However, early on in a case it is really hard to make an even remotely predictive estimate of value. To avoid later misunderstandings, we try to avoid putting numbers on the case before we have a reasonable basis for doing so. Being a lawyer, of course I have ways of being oblique about all this and attempting to deflect the question of value. This is what I did with this veteran the other day. Well, he called me on it:  “You’re just giving me lawyer talk, a bunch of gobbledygook,” he said. He was polite, but his irritation was not hard to discern.

The veteran was right. And I told him so. The honest answer was I didn’t know and didn’t want to guess. I walked him through the process and gave him some examples of other cases – not all of which were ones he wanted to hear. The veteran was satisfied and we ended the conversation laughing after he told me a crude but quite funny lawyer joke.   

What is the connection between the well-educated and likely brilliant young foreign doctor and the crusty old veteran?  As a lawyer, I will tell you that those two clients are about as far apart on the spectrum as you can get. However, the link is obvious: Both appreciated and expected honesty. All of us do. You don’t have to have a doctorate degree to see “gobbledygook” for just what it is – and that is a lesson that lawyers like me need to be reminded of. Frequently.

There are no guarantees in any court case. Any lawyer who tells you that he or she has never lost a case has either not tried any or the lawyer is a liar. The latter is the more common by the way and I use the word “liar” quite deliberately. Having tried a lot of cases, I detest lawyers who brag about a plainly fictional record. When you go to court, strange things can happen for odd reasons. That just the nature of this business. Experience and judgment matter hugely in my business, but even the best lawyers have cases where you do everything right, but they still don’t turn out as we expected or hoped.

After 34 years I am still frequently reminded that, in fact, I have not “seen it all before.”  In part, that is why I still like this business and am still have having fun after all this time. There is, however, a guarantee that a lawyer should give a client. A lawyer can and should guarantee any client that he or she will always be honest and direct with them. To use that old phrase from the 60’s, the lawyer has to “tell it like it is.”  That’s our job. And, in reality, most clients appreciate it even when the news is not good or the outcome is not what they expected. 


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