Clients As Pals: Almost As Bad as the Client from Hell

Talk to any solo, and invariably, he or she will share a story of a client from hell.  You know who I’m talking about:  the one who won’t pay the bills, who calls at all hours, who wonders why a 20 page motion took 10 hours to draft or who complains about how lawyers are money grubbers.  But just as troublesome as the client from hell are the clients who are your pals.  As I describe below, it’s these guys, the friendly clients, who pull you in too close, to the point where you may compromise your professional judgment.  And then these clients who you thought were friends and colleagues revert back to ordinary clients, they’ll be the first to turn on you when you need their support.

Take these two seemingly disparate examples – Lynne Stewart, the criminal defense attorney convicted for actions in connection with her representation of Sheik Abdel Rahman who conspired to blow up the World Trade Center the first time, and Enron’s former chairman, Ken Lay.  Norm Pattis of Crime and Federalism addresses the Lynne Stewart conviction here, describing how the political views that she shared with the Sheik brought her dangerously close to her client so as to cloud her judgment:

Stewart’s downfall was not in providing aggressive defense to the  Sheik. Her downfall was letting her politics cloud her judgment. She has long spoken out in favor of “directed violence” as a means of combatting policy objectives she dislikes. When she represented the Sheik, she was, in effect, representing views to which she subscribed. Her judgment was clouded[…] Stewart became part of the case she was defending. She became a tool of the Sheik because it suited her private views. She let her representation of the Sheik become personal.

Ken Lay’s case is another example of how ties between an outside firm and a client subject to investigation can bring the firm down later on.  In his testimony at the Enron trial, Lay blamed plenty of folks for Enron’s demise, including its law firm, Vinson and Elkins.  Lay described that he took initial complaints about Enron seriously enough to call in outside counsel and relied on their representation that Enron was acting within the law.  (Skilling made the same claims during his testimony, as reported in more detail here in Trial probes Enron’s Cozy Ties with Law Firm) Though V&E may have been gentler than it should have out of a financial motive to keep a deep pocketed client, given the revolving door between V&E and Enron lawyers, a general camaraderie likely existed as  well, making it harder for V&E to serve as the bearer of bad news.

Norm Pattis offers the best advice for lawyer client relations in his post:

I find it far easier to represent folks with whom I share little common ground. All this prattle about “loving” your client and “walking in his shoes” obscures the attorney-client relationship. We defend folks in need and are their advocates within the rule of law.

Just as parents should not strive for friendship with their children, lawyers should always remember the line between professional responsibility and camaraderie with clients.  Sure, clients from hell are no fun, but at least they don’t bring any surprises; you know that they’re likely to grieve you, so you proceed with caution.  By contrast, if you’re drinking buddies with your client, the way Lay and Skilling likely were with V&E, it’s too easy to let your guard down.  And if you do, like V&E, you may find yourself  blamed in the national media for the alleged criminal conduct by your former client.

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