This blog is not intended to provide legal advice, legal services or legal anything else. Don't sue me. All I have is debt anyway.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Things they don't teach you in law school

I have a new case that has been hard on me. While I obviously can't talk about the case itself, I can say that I am emotionally invested in the matter due to a pre-existing relationship with the client. And it is one of those instances where being an attorney just isn't enough. I can resolve the legal problem, but I cannot fix the underlying cause. And due to my new role as attorney in the matter, I cannot ethically step outside of that relationship to seek help for the underlying cause, nor can I reveal confidential information I obtained in my role as legal counsel. It gives me pause about taking such a case in the future for a friend or family member (I have a policy that I do legal work for friends and family for free, within reason, of course), or even an aquaintance. It isn't something we ever really discussed in PR. I wish we would have spent more time actually discussing scenarios that were likely to occur instead of the really stupid shit you should know not to do if you aren't a complete fucking idiot (i.e. break into your client's ex-wife's house and microwave her cat; steal millions of dollars from your clients after a class action settlement; murder your own client -- you know, the usual). But knowing what you are supposed to do, doesn't make it any easier when you're doing it. So, I'm troubled.

But law school doesn't prepare you for actually practicing law, as EH pointed out in her recent post (with some great tips about talking to clients). It doesn't prepare you for handling difficult clients, or helping your clients when what they need is mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, domestic abuse counseling, financial advice, employment assistance, medication, etc., and fixing the legal problems is only fixing the symptom not the disease. So many of my family law clients fall into those categories, and often, I'm at a loss as to how to help them. Often times I feel like I contribute to their problems. I'm prepping a client for her testimony in court, making her relive every moment of her abuse and her own bad decisions. For her legal issues, I have to do it. But it tears her down even further, and if she doesn't get help, what then? She continues to make bad choices, she continues to go back to the guy who beat her up, or she finds another guy just like him. I can't break that cycle for her, and it's frustrating. And I wish I were talking about just one client in particular, but it's all of them, with a variety of problems and a variety of symptoms.

It's also why I consider the work I'm doing at the MLP important, because there is that philosophy of preventative assistance. In my own practice, I see these people when the mess has spiraled out of control, and I wonder, how am I just supposed to put a bandaid on this person? How am I supposed to go to court, negotiate an agreement, etc., when it is just prolonging the inevitable next crisis?

Some days I feel like what I do is incredibly important (even if it pays incredibly bad). Other days, I feel like I'm using a squirt gun to put out a house fire, and it's disheartening. I don't know if I would have gone to law school if I'd known this would be my practice. I thought my practice would be about money -- corporate law, business transactions, or at the very least, insurance defense. I never thought I'd be doing what I'm doing, and I'm still not sure I want to.


E.H. said...

I think representing people you know beyond wills is not a good idea, for all the reasons you mentioned. Or at least go into it knowing the underlying relationship may never be the same. :(

The only thing that has helped me when I'm in sticky situations like the one you're in is to stop and break it down as "who is my client?" and "What is my duty?" I want to be superwoman and have the "counselor" part of the job, but that just isn't my training. I can only recommend. It sucks.

Proto Attorney said...

When I worked at the prosecutor's office, I once sat in on a meeting with a sexual assault victim. My mentor was there, and the victim's advocate. At one point, the victim breaks down and starts crying, obviously in a great deal of turmoil over what had happened to her. I was immediately like, oh crap, all I've got to offer here are tissues. The prosecutor, who has like 15 years experience, looked like he wished he could hide under the table. Fortunately, the victim's advocate had everything under control and knew all the right things to say and do. There is just nothing in our legal training that prepares us for that.

I've heard some attorneys say they feel it is part of their job and responsibility to their clients to be a counselor. I just can't get there. But it also makes me feel like I'm only doing half my job.

As for my new case, I probably would have declined had I known what I was getting myself into. What I was initially told was not even a fraction of the story when I agreed to help. When I read the file, I was like "Oh shit." But while I think any attorney/monkey could handle the legal issues, I'm hoping I can convince the client to make a change before the next round of crises occurs.

legally certifiable said...

Ok, I just picked up a situation EXACTLY like what you just described in your first paragraph. I have yet to figure out how to deal with it without breaching privilege. Arghhh.

I'm usually pretty good at ducking cases from friends and family, but the nature of the relationship and the type of case really left me with no choice here.

I have no advice, but I do feel your pain.