Lessons of Rakofsky v. the Internet: Be the Kind of Lawyer That Your Client Can Be Proud Of

Avid readers may recall that two years ago, MyShingle and I received an “invite” to the defendants’ table  in Rakofsky v. the Internet. Roughly two years later, a decision is finally in.  Defendants prevailed; you can read others’ legal analysis here ,here and here.  Having spent two years reading through reams of pleadings, I see no reason to spill any more ink on the legal question of whether my blog posts were defamatory. They weren’t. The case is over, my side won – and that’s enough. Or is it?

No – it’s not. Because what I’ve learned in my time as a defendant on the other side of the pleading  is that it’s not just enough for lawyers to handle a case competently enough for the win.  If that’s all that my lawyers, Marc Randazza  and Eric Turkewitz had done for me (and my co-defendants) in this case, I’d feel underwhelmed. Yes, I’d think to myself – my lawyers won the case but so what? Couldn’t dozens of other lawyers have done the same thing? Soon, I’d start second-guessing their work (couldn’t they have done more to make it go away sooner?) and ultimately, what they charged would overshadow the result they delivered.

To be clear, that’s not what happened. Not only did Marc and Eric win the case, they served us well, with exceptional briefs, procedural finesse (a skill not to be underestimated) and near-instantaneous responsiveness. Even so, this is the level of performance that clients should expect of their lawyers. That Marc and Eric delivered so well was appreciated of course (particularly because it couldn’t have been a picnic for them to represent 15 opinionated and strong-willed attorneys). But their performance didn’t surprise me because that’s the reason I hired them.

What did surprise me however was that as a client I might feel proud of my lawyers — not just because of how they handled themselves within my case, but also, their reputation outside of it. Throughout case, whenever I saw Marc on T.V. defending Rush Limbaugh’s First Amendment rights (even though he detests the guy) or standing up for the Steubenville blogger, I’d think – “Wow – that’s my lawyer.” When I saw Eric’s picture on the side of a New York bus, I bragged to all of my New York attorney friends – “Hey did you see the New York marathon ads on the buses? That guy in the ad is my lawyer – and a damn good one too!”

Before I became a client myself, it never occurred to me that clients would feel a sense of pride in the lawyer who represented them. But it makes sense. When clients pay precious money to hire a lawyer, they either want someone who stands for what they stand for – or, someone who stands up for them, period. Recall in to Kill a Mockingbird how Tom Robinson’s supporters stood up for Atticus when he left the courtroom – he did them proud.

Even if I’m not clearly articulating how a client might feel proud of a lawyer, certainly, you can understand the flip side: clients who are ashamed of their lawyers. How must clients feel when their lawyer is caught stealing from a trust fund or sleeping with clients or publicly held out by a judge as an example of incompetence or acting like buffoons in television commercial? Although I’ve never particularly cared if lawyer conduct is “dignified” or “befitting of the legal professional” since I’ve always viewed these concepts as highbrow and elitist, I never considered how lawyers’ doltish conduct makes their clients (rather than other lawyers) feel.

It’s rare to hear of clients expressing pride in their lawyers. That they’re not suggests that perhaps we are falling short. At a time when clients are turning to non-lawyer alternatives to get the job done, we lawyers can – and must – do more than simply serve clients competently and get results.  We must make them proud.  Whether that’s through pro bono work or blogging or standing up for an unpopular view or playing a role in the community, that’s your choice.  As for me, going forward from this case, I only hope to make my clients as proud of me as I was – and am – of my lawyers. Thank you Marc and Eric.