Attorneys are consumed with doing a good job and winning. (Attorneys may say they aren’t competitive, but they really are. It’s what keeps them motivated.)
Normally, however, they don’t really worry about the style in which they win. If they win by not saying a word to the judge, they’re happy because they won. If they say too much in court, they’re happy because they won. If they show up twenty minutes late and win, they’re happy because they won.
Clients on the other hand, want and expect certain things of their attorneys. Those things might have nothing to do with winning, but they want them anyway.
Here are a few things I’ve noticed clients want their divorce attorneys to do, especially in court:
- Arrive on time.
- Talk a lot.
- (Related to #2) Counter every wrong thing the other guy says.
- (Related to #2) Restate everything written in the pleadings.
Now, none of these four things really has much to do with winning. In fact, numbers two through four are often inversely correlated to winning. (Related aside: I can predict how well I do in front of one particular commissioner by how much I have to talk. If I don’t talk much, I win. If I have to explain things in detail, I often lose.)
But none of this matters to many clients. Items one through four are what they expect because these are what they see on TV.
Law & Order Syndrome
I call these expectations the Law & Order Syndrome.
Jack McCoy never showed up late to a hearing. (His motorcycle probably had something to do with that.) He was never at a loss for words. On the contrary, he always had more than enough to say in every situation. And, since it’s television, Jack had to say everything because showing a judge reading a legal memorandum that took five hours to prepare isn’t good for sweeps week.
This syndrome causes real, and sometimes serious, problems.
I’ve seen clients win 90% of everything they wanted, and, instead of focusing on their victories, they complain that their attorneys were five minutes late to the hearing. I’ve seen a client win every issue, but be upset because the attorney didn’t speak as much as the client thought the attorney should have. (I mean, the attorney won every issue, and the client was upset because the attorney’s style didn’t match what their TV-driven expectation. Think about that.)
So, there’s somewhat of a fundamental disconnect between what clients expect and what attorneys strive to deliver and how they deliver it.
How to deal with Law & Order Syndrome
How should attorneys handle this? As I see it, there are two primary ways:
- Ignore the issue.
- Explain your style upfront and how it may differ from what the client expects.
The first option will lead you to the problems mentioned above. If you ignore the issue, no matter how good you are, and no matter how much you win, your clients will always be disappointed because how you win does not meet expectations. It makes no sense, but it’s what happens. Expectations are more important than reality in many cases.
The second option lets you get out in front of the issue. When you tell people how you lawyer and how that might be different from their expectations, you change their thinking. Now, when they see you practice law consistent with what you said, they focus on your successes and not your style.
Under this scenario, you’re simply a genius, instead of the guy who didn’t act like Jack McCoy.
In the end, know your style and convey it to your clients upfront. It sure beats winning, only to get castigated for winning wrong.