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Feeling Your Client’s Pain

I recently read a very successful personal injury lawyer’s advice to a lawyer who was starting a personal injury practice. His advice was “make your client’s pain your own and everything else will take care of itself.”

I suspect that’s excellent advice, and not just for a personal injury practice.

It presents unique challenges for a criminal practice though. On one hand, I know that the best results I’ve achieved for clients have come when I take their case completely to heart. Cases tend to go better than I think they will when I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about what I’ll say at a hearing, or I find myself thinking of an argument to make to a prosecutor when I should be listening to one of my kids tell me about his day. Clients deserve to have a lawyer who is thinking about their cases obsessively. I know if I, or a member of my family, need a lawyer, I’d want that lawyer to be thinking about the case often.

On the other hand, criminal defense lawyers, particularly in the federal system, lose. And when you lose and you’ve taken your client’s pain to heart, it becomes your pain. There’s a tremendous amount of burnout among criminal defense lawyers; worse, too often defense lawyers prevent themselves from burning out by just not caring about their clients in the first place. The lawyer who yells at his client at the initial consultation, or doesn’t explain to his client what will happen if he pleads or goes to trial, or browbeats his client into a quick plea, is the worst of our profession, and may just be keeping himself from feeling how desparate his client’s situation is.

Which is not to say that this is excusable. There’s an important difference between a defense and an argument you make at sentencing.

The hard part, I find, is striking a balance between being too close and too distant to how my clients. Too close and you lose perspective and can’t function. And, while it hurts to see a guy who has robbed a bank go to prison, you’re not going to be able to prevent that from happening in most cases. Whether or not you feel the guy’s pain, he’s likely going to BOP. But if you don’t feel what he’s going through at all, I don’t know why you’d bother to do this work.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

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2 responses to “Feeling Your Client’s Pain”

  1. Benjamin Seaman says:

    As a psychoanalyst, I know this struggle really well and I like to think I keep one leg in the river with my client – how else to know exactly how strong the currents are that he faces – and one leg on the shore – how else to maintain access to solid land where access to sanity, community, perspective and other essential resource abound? Then the work is knowing at any point you may be shifting your weight from one leg to the other, and the work will slap in your face when you’re getting it wrong – whether it’s because you’re losing the case, on the one hand or losing your piece of mind on the other.

  2. Noah Clements says:

    I found that when I got too close to my immigration pro bono client, I was frozen and could not function/write what needed to be written/etc.  He needed me to be his dispassionate advocate, not his friend, and I needed that too to be his lawyer effectively.  Once I got some emotional distance again, I was able to do my job much more effectively.  Emotional distance helped me to simplify the case for the court as well, helping us to win a hard case.  So often there is such a complicated morass I can sink into when I take the case too personally, but I think you can still be a passionate advocate for your clients, and even more so, with some perspective and distance.   

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