“Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

Every so often I’ll get a call like the one today: a potential client wants to know how I would handle a case while coyly implying that he’s trying to see “if I’m a good enough lawyer.”

It’d be far more efficient if people just asked, “Could I please have 5 minutes of free legal advice,” but that would spoil the fun, no?

The conventional wisdom is that you don’t ever give legal advice to a person who isn’t your client. It’s good advice: you have no idea if you’re giving the person the correct advice without understanding the full scope of the problem.  The last thing you want is to get sued for malpractice when a person claims they took your bad advice –and you didn’t even get paid for giving it in the first place.

I’ve never been the best about following conditional wisdom, and I was in a good mood today, so my potential client successful tricked me into giving him all sorts of strategies and advice.

And it was about as useful to him as if my cardiologist told me the secrets to doing my own heart surgery.

The matter involved an appeal of a school expulsion hearing. He made it relatively clear that he didn’t see the value in paying a lawyer to do what he could do (he’d dropped the pretense of wanting to see if I was good enough to handle his son’s case). Ultimately, he just wanted me to tell him what to do.

Me:     “Did you do the first hearing by yourself?”

Him:   “Yes.”

Me:     “How’d that turn out?”

Him:  “We lost.”

Me:     “So now you want to do the appeal by yourself?”

Him:   “Yes – I want to explain all the stuff that they didn’t listen to the first time in the appeal.”

Me:      “So what I hear you saying is that it didn’t work the first time, but you want to do the exact same thing now for the appeal.”

Him:   “Well, they didn’t listen the first time.”

His frustration was honest: school expulsion hearings are very difficult to win – even when you’re represented by counsel. I cannot imagine how low the win-loss ratio is when a parent is representing their child for the first time. (It’s probably the statistical equivalent to the number of times a suspect has won in a battle with an interrogator). And deep down inside he knew that presenting the same arguments to the school wasn’t likely to change the outcome.

For some reason, the same arguments coming from a third-party are very different than when they come from a parent. This is frustrating to those that don’t want to spend the money hiring an advocate. In a logical system, the strength and analytical content of the argument should prevail over the ethos and pathos of who is delivering it.

But study after study on persuasion consistently proves that’s not the case. A parent who defends their child may come off as enabling, minimizing, or in denial of a more serious problem. Instead of getting their kid out of trouble, sometimes their well-intentioned advocacy can make matters worse. An advocate does exactly what the parent wants to do, but without emotional attachment: he can articulate the logical reasons for a course of action. There’s nothing to read into other than the strength of the argument. Even if I gave the potential client all my best arguments, they are different when delivered from his vantage point as a parent (with independent responsibility to hold his son accountable) than my perspective as the child’s advocate.

Our conversation ended with the question no longer being, “can you tell me what to do” but “can’t you just do it for me?”

I guess he thought I was good enough.

(image via dicecollector.com)

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