Good Advice in Tough Times

By J.D. Hensarling
Attorney at Law


I have a friend who is a lawyer in another state. He and I were talking one day and I asked him, “If you were to give any advice to a lawyer representing a client in an active court case, what advice would you give him or her?” He chuckled, thought for a moment, and then gave me some good advice.

First, be honest. This seems trite, maybe even cliché. I remember learning in grade school that George Washington could not lie when he chopped down the cherry tree. I remember reading about Abraham Lincoln’s legendary candor with the Court and with other lawyers. He was known as “Honest Abe.” Mr. Lincoln once said, “[R]esolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.” My friend told me that a client would rather hear you tell them bad news up front than be surprised with bad news later. He said, “If you don’t think the client’s position is very strong, tell them so. Don’t tell them things that make them think they are in a better legal position than they really are.”

This advice comports with the requirements in the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct. Under Rule 2.1, a client is entitled to a lawyer’s honest and candid assessment of the matters before them. Also, Rule 3.3 prohibits a lawyer from making a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal and offering evidence the lawyer knows is false. My friend’s advice about being honest rings true.

I think a subpart of honesty, is the requirement of lawyer competency. Rule 1.1 prohibits a lawyer from handling legal matters that the lawyer knows he or she is not competent to handle. A lawyer should be honest about what he or she can and cannot do, given their knowledge, experience, and time constraints. My friend reminded me that it is O.K. to say “No” to a potential representation, and may be in the best interest of the prospective client to do so. He said, “If you can’t handle the matter, send them down the street to your fiend who can.”

“Second,” he continued, “a lawyer should work hard for the client.” The client should be able to expect diligence. He asked me, “wouldn’t you want a timely call back or e-mail response? Wouldn’t you want your lawyer to meet case deadlines?” I had to answer in the affirmative. He then said, “clients expect that their lawyer is working in their best interest and will keep them updated on their legal matter in a timely fashion.” I can’t disagree with my friend’s statements. Rule 1.3 requires that a lawyer act with diligence and promptness in representing her client. Rule 1.4 requires the lawyer to promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance in the case and to keep the client reasonably informed. My friend reminded me to tell my client what he or she needs to know when they reasonably need to know it.

Third, and certainly as importantly, my friend reminded me of the importance of being compassionate and patient to clients. He reminded me that we represent parties in legal proceedings on a regular basis in our profession. It is what we do as lawyers. For many of our clients, this may be their first experience in a legal matter. It is not what they do in the regular course of their business. For them a court case can be scary, can produce anxiety, and can grow into the most important matter in their world, choking out other important and positive matters, like conducting their business. He said, “your client is looking for an experienced captain to navigate them through rocky and choppy waters.” He told me that he often has to answer questions more than once and has to explain each step of the process, sometimes multiple times. He said he doesn’t mind this.

Finally, my friend told me that a lawyer should be human. I told him that I am not aware of any non-human lawyers, cats or dogs appearing in our courts. He told me that he meant, “act like a human, someone who has compassion and common courtesy for others.” This made a lot of sense. I was reminded of the times I have heard from non-lawyer friends of instances when they believed a lawyer had done something to further the negative view of lawyers having a bad reputation. I certainly don’t want to add to this stereotype.

I think my friend’s advice is good and should form the basis of what client’s expect of lawyers in general and of me as a lawyer specifically. It was a good reminder of the high calling of our profession.

Please give the attorneys at Vann Attorneys, PLLC a call to discuss your legal needs.

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