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. It can also be infuriating and disheartening. However, by understanding the reasoning behind the question and how to answer, it can help your own mental health as the attorney and strengthen trust with the client, fostering a good relationship.
Aside from 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.
Discuss Key Concepts
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:
It is important for the client to know that you are okay with discussing the question, and that you are not upset. This should be conveyed in tone.
You have a law degree and license to practice (that is, that you are, in fact, a “real” attorney).
You chose to do this work, and you chose to do it because you care about it.
You think 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.
Make sure the client knows that no matter what, it is their choice on whether to hire a different attorney, but that if they choose to stick 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 (for example, 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!
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What inspires you to do ___ or be ___?
I am inspired to be a public defender because I believe that everyone deserves good representation, regardless of how much money they have. The legal system should be accessible to everyone in the public, particularly when someone is accused of a crime. I am also passionate about my work because defense attorneys provide a much-needed check on law enforcement and prosecution to ensure a fair system and to protect the rights of citizens that are guaranteed by our constitution.
Further, I like being a public defender because I am able to help people, most of whom have had a very difficult and devastating upbringing, to navigate a time in their lives when they are scared and often feel alone because of a lack of stable social support. I find that expressing care for them and their case can mean more than anything else I do because they want to feel as though they are truly getting their day in court (although fierce advocacy probably means a lot, too).
Kate Cook, Wisconsin State Public Defender, Eau Claire.
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» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 47-48 (October 2021).