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Bar News - October 15, 2010

Unmentored: Advice for Today’s New Lawyer It’s All about Them – the Clients!


Kirk C. Simoneau
Last month in this column we discussed bullies. Not schoolyard bullies, of course, but those big, bad blowhards of the courtroom, who try to use our own inexperience against us. You will remember, the advice was simple: Let them know that you know what they’re doing, and be better prepared than they are.

However, before you get bullied by opposing counsel, you first have to have a client – so this month we are going to discuss clients.

I know I promised an update on a talk from Joni Esperian, Executive Director of the NH Commission for Human Rights, but we postponed her appearance at our new-lawyer lunch because of the City of Manchester’s World Championship Chili Cookoff! Who knew Manchester was the world’s chili capital? Although from the aroma of the city, perhaps we all should have expected something.

Joni Esperian will be with us October 22.

Choosing the Right Client

Invariably, at our monthly new- lawyer lunches, the questions turn to client-created difficulties. That is why it is extremely important, whether you are an hourly attorney or a contingent-fee counselor, to carefully select your clients.

In watching senior attorneys deal with younger attorneys, I’ve noticed a common new-lawyer malady. We get so overwhelmed, or encouraged, or excited, by the story that a potential client tells us, and by the possibility of a case, that we fail to really observe the client himself. In the discussion at a recent lunch, we learned that: when listening to the client’s story, when sifting through the facts, when looking at the documents, we need to stop and look at the client. A client who is a good person can help a shaky case; but a client who is a bad person, can ruin even a good case, because every case really revolves not around the facts, but around the people.

If your client comes to you telling a story of a car accident and some horrific injuries, yet the client bounds into your office and happily leaps out of his chair to shake your hand, you need to doubt that client. If he wants to file bankruptcy wearing an Armani suit, doubt that client.

How do you evaluate a client? I’ve compiled a list based on discussions at our lunches – and on about 1,000 years of combined experience:
  • Ask whether the case has already been handled by any other lawyers. In one of my first cases, I was sitting alongside a senior partner, David Slawsky, and we had just signed two new clients with a great case. As we all finished signing the Fee Agreement, they said, "Boy, I’m sure glad you guys took this case, because those nine other lawyers we met with sure didn’t want to have anything to do with us." Find out why the other lawyer(s) got out. I wish we had.

  • Never take a case if a client is seeking revenge or acting "solely on principle." This is true even if the client is an hourly client. You will never be more dissatisfied in life than when you find yourself working by the hour to avenge somebody else’s principles if those principles do not align with your own.

  • You want to look very carefully at clients who have an answer for every question. Clients are supposed to, by and large, be new to the law. They’ve seldom had previous interaction with the court system. A client who has an answer to every question may be a client manipulating a situation to build a case. Lawyers should build cases, clients shouldn’t.

  • You will also want to avoid what David Nixon calls, "brown bag cases." Those are cases in which a client shows up and drops a brown bag full of evidence on your desk and says he has a million dollar case. He doesn’t.

Do You Like the Client?

In addition to these basic rules, you need to size up your client on a personal level. Do you like the client? Will other people like the client? Will a jury like the client? This advice may vary slightly by case type. Perhaps if you do wills, likeability doesn’t matter so much; or maybe it does? If the client is not a likeable person and you are becoming his estate-planning attorney, you are probably going to be his attorney for a long time.

Remember, every case begins and ends with your client. If you can’t stand him, nobody else will be able to, either.

Kirk C. Simoneau, admitted to the NH Bar in 2009, recently was named a partner at the Nixon, Vogelman, Barry & Slawsky law firm in Manchester.

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