For many of us working in the public interest law field or taking cases for reduced pay, hearing the question “Should I hire a ‘real’ attorney?” is common.
Kate Cook, Indiana 2012, is with the State Public Defender’s Office in Eau Claire.
It can also be infuriating and disheartening. However, by understanding the reasoning behind the question and how to answer it, the question can not only help your own mental health as the attorney, but also strengthen trust with the client and build a good relationship.
Frank Abagnale, nobody likes to hear that they are not viewed as a “real” attorney or less than anybody else. However, the harsh reality is that the world we live in views free or reduced-rate attorneys as lesser. It is a common public perception because we live in a capitalist society that places value on things and services that are more expensive.
Combine that with the perception that attorneys are unethical money-hounds, and we have a perfect storm of an entire society that is more likely to believe that those of us who work in the public interest field or at a reduced rate do so because we are lazy or cannot get any other job.
Therefore, when a client asks about hiring a private attorney, it may be because they have been taught to think that our work has no value, and that we do not care about it. It may also be due to the general recognition that certain aspects of our legal system are overburdened and under resourced.
Ways to Respond
While this question can feel frustrating and insulting, admonishing the client generally does not go over well, either practically or in terms of building trust with the client.
Try meeting these questions with compassion and empathy. The question typically comes from a place of fear and of an earnest need to trust someone at one of the most vulnerable points of that person’s life.
Therefore, several key concepts should be discussed at that point. A few things to tell your client are that:
you are okay with discussing the question, and you are not upset – this should be conveyed in a calm tone;
you have a law degree and license to practice (i.e., that you, in fact, are a “real” attorney);
you chose to do this work, and that you chose to do it because you care about it;
you feel that everyone in our society deserves zealous representation, regardless of ability to pay, and that they deserve a good attorney for their case;
in some cases, it is a good idea to outline the different services that a private attorney can provide. For example, in the public defender world, you might explain to the client that you may not be as available as a private attorney and that you do handle more cases than a private attorney, which can be drawbacks, but that you also know and deal with the prosecutors and judges on a much more frequent and daily basis, and have handled many similar cases before, which can be beneficial; and
make sure the client knows that, no matter what, it is their choice on whether to hire a different attorney, but that if they stay with you, that you will be a strong advocate for them.
Having this type of discussion with your client will give them some necessary information (i.e., that they have the power to decide, and that they can trust you to give them good advice at all points in the process and have their best interests in mind), and help to establish a good and honest client-attorney relationship in which they can trust.
As with many situations, reacting to an uncomfortable question with grace and empathy can build trust and lead to a more meaningful connection. Good luck!
In addition, if you feel like you have more than lost your passion for the law, or if you are struggling with mental health, physical health, or substance abuse, the State Bar of Wisconsin offers the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program(WisLAP). WisLAP provides free and confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families in coping with any substance abuse or dependence, mental health challenges, or other stressors which negatively impact the quality of life and the practice of law, including the COVID-19 pandemic. You can contact the WisLAP 24-hour helpline at (800) 543-2625.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.