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August 31, 2005

My Diversion: Jury Duty in America's Finest City

Although the three other lawyers and I were not selected, last week, after postponing it twice, I showed up for jury duty at San Diego Superior Court. Jury duty is never convenient for anyone, and the lady at the Jury Services office near the Jury Assembly Room at 220 West Broadway in downtown San Diego said I could postpone again. I stayed anyway. Lawyers don't regularly make it on to juries. I knew that being in many respects defense-oriented in my trial orientation -- even though I generally represent companies in civil cases -- would keep me off even a criminal jury.

I was curious, too. My litigation experience has been chiefly in federal courts all over the U.S. Nearly all my clients, generally out-of-town companies, prefer federal trial courts. But sometimes clients don't have that choice. So I was curious about the San Diego system under California’s one day/one trial system and how it compared to D.C. (where I was trained) and Pittsburgh (where I co-founded my firm 13 years ago). My conclusion, by the way, was that San Diego's system was as fair and efficient a state system as I have encountered -- so I'll leave it at that.

I was also curious about the jurors who showed up, and what they thought about the "system" and "process" -- words some used to describe their past jury service experiences during voir dire. The case was a criminal prosecution of a mild-mannered middle-aged Georgian (i.e., the country on the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey) charged with kidnapping and assault -- not exactly your typical news item in staid, pleasant San Diego. I had hoped for a civil business case.

But I wasn't disappointed. There were 40+ members of the pool for this case and 5 of them really surprised me. Maybe trying to get out of jury duty, or maybe just venting, they said in effect they didn't trust testimony (pretty much any testimony) by police officers or detectives. Two were college-educated housewives, two were middle manager executive white males and one was an engineer in his twenties. As large American cities go, San Diego is reputed to be a relatively well-mannered, conformist, law-abiding and conservative place, with a disproportionate number of military retirees and refugees from the American midwest -- so this bowled me over.

What struck me even more was that 5 different jurors, who also seemed well-educated, said -- in response to being asked whether there was anything which would prevent them from being impartial in the case -- that they were cynical about or somehow disillusioned with "the system", i.e. lawyers, judges, courts and outcomes. I talked to some of them after we were all excused from duty. One had bad experiences with lawyers generally; one thought courts less than even-handed; one had read news reports about ill-grounded cases, both criminal and civil. But whatever the reason, these 5 out of 40+ (and, I think, the tip of the iceberg in the room) repeated the same message: it doesn't work. All seemed intelligent and even-keeled. All were irked.

What does this all say about how we’re serving clients, at least clients as individuals? It tells me that lawyers (including judges), the real guardians of how clients and citizens think about the system, certainly aren't helping market one another. And no one I heard or talked to in the courthouse last week talked about excessive fees, wasted resources, or high-priced expert witnesses, either. It wasn't about money. I'm not a psychiatrist, and I don't pretend to know what these people were really thinking or their real experiences. But they had been abused by the system, and felt that as ordinary people they were somehow used as the equipment the lawyers and the system needed for an endless and to them pointless game. I seriously doubt whether they felt the same way about the medical or accounting professions or about their banks or landscaping services. They seemed to think we (and the rest of the system) haven’t served them and that we don’t really care whether we serve them or not.

Posted by JD Hull at 09:00 AM | Comments (0)

August 26, 2005

What if you only represented clients you actually "liked"?

Only a few books I can find on the subject of rendering services to customers in the business sections of Borders or Barnes & Noble ever mention it. In the context of lawyer services, it's simply this: except for some court appointments and pro bono engagements, what if we only chose to represent clients we liked?

By "like", I mean it loosely: to derive for whatever reason real pleasure and satisfaction while doing legal work for a individual or organization.

My firm shies away from individuals as clients, regardless of his or her resources. We usually represent businesses. So in the case of an organization, we "like" the client because overall we somehow feel comfortable with or maybe even admire the personality, business culture or goals of that client, personally like/admire the client reps and general counsel, or both.

My firm "likes" business clients which are experienced, sophisticated users of legal services. When we perform well, the client appreciates us and signals that appreciation. So then we like the client even more, and want to do an even better job or keep doing the good job we are doing so we can derive more real pleasure from the engagement, and obtain more work.

As simple and as annoyingly Mr. Rogers-esque as this all sounds, we have never, ever had good long-term relationships with any organization client (1) which did not genuinely appreciate what we were doing for it or (2) which had disturbing corporate personalities (i.e., mean-spirited Rambo cultures, groups with employees given to blame-storming, or companies with disorganized, internally-uncommunicative or just plain lazy staffs.)

We rely on repeat business. For us, there's no substantial reason to accept a new engagement unless we think we might want to represent that client in the long term. For years, I often sensed before the first draft of the representation letter was done that the new client didn't fit us. Usually I couldn't articulate it--or maybe I just disliked the client rep. But because of the money or the prestige of the engagement, we took the project, and kept going after the repeat business anyway. A few years ago, we stopped doing that.

Does my attitude clash with some people's notions of real client service, duty to the profession or basic law firm economics? It sure does. And today I don't think I can practice law any other way. In the long term, having no client is better than a bad client--or one that I don't see courting down the road.

Posted by JD Hull at 11:26 AM | Comments (2)

August 01, 2005

Are lawyers just kidding themselves about delivering true service to clients?

Reviews on lawyers always have ranged from architects of great nations and the world's commercial markets to necessary evils who add little value to any project. We are said to be manipulators with at best convenient notions of truth. And horror stories about our botched or inattentive services are legion.

True service to clients: are we delivering this and, if we aren't, can we talk about why?

1. Do we lawyers have a “we versus them” or adversarial mentality about clients when our main focus should be doing the job we promised to do and protecting clients from third parties or bad events -- the real “them” -- which would harm our clients?

2. Has lawyer camaraderie evolved into such clubiness that we have lost sight of the client’s primacy?

3. Do we regularly lie to and slight our clients? (Professionally, is that really any different than cheating on our spouses?)

4. Are there built-in barriers which prevent true service to the client? Are contingency fee arrangements with clients a built-in conflict of interest which can never be justified -- even in the name of “access to the court system?” When we work for the insureds of insurance companies, are we fair to the real clients -- the insureds? Will we ever put the interests of the insureds first?

5. Are lawyer jokes funny to us because they sound like the truth?

6. Has the overpopulation of markets with lawyers forced us into a free-for-all?

7. Do many of us wind up selling clients short because we are disillusioned or burned out?

8. In short, did we forget the main event -- the clients themselves?

What do you really think?

Posted by JD Hull at 12:00 PM | Comments (2)