I Still Stand With You

Posted on July 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

I Still Stand With You

By Jonathan Dichter

Continuing to Remember What Our Clients Really Need

Some years ago, I wrote an article for a Washington State Defense Journal entitled "I Will Stand With You." I have received amazing feedback from it including a local public defense agency making it part of their required reading for new hires.

Our world has changed since then - drastically as of late. Our clients need us even more than before and in new ways we couldn't have anticipated three years ago. The time has come to recommit ourselves to our core values and continue to remember who we serve, and more importantly, what they need from us. Recognize that our clients' journey through a DUI is unrelenting traumatic stress. It doesn't end for them at 5pm. Or on weekends. It never stops. They've put themselves in the most vulnerable position a human being can be in - they're asking a stranger (you) for help.

Before we can get to negotiations with the prosecutor - before we can draft our motions to suppress BACs - before voir dire - before closing arguments - before everything we consider to be the "core" of our jobs - we have a piece we often fail to consider: our clients. Now, I know what you're thinking. Surely we all are aware of the fact that we represent clients. We're aware of our obligations under the appropriate ethical rules for our states. We're aware of the fact that the clients are essentially how we get paid to do our jobs. But there are a lot of times that we forget some basic truths that will help us be better at our jobs for those people.

Knowing what our job is, though, becomes critical in an attempt to understand how to do it better. So, let me state this at the outset. Our job is not to win. Our job is not to lose. We can't control those things. Even the best of us lose. Even a lousy case sometimes turns into a winner. We can only do what we can do. So what's our job?

Our job is to help our clients through the process. And make sure they're not going through it alone.

And my goal with this update is to remind us of some of the things we occasionally forget. Look - we all have lives. We're all at home (for the most part) and suffering through a global pandemic and civil unrest. We're homeschooling and struggling through the bills and zoom calls while our cats walk on our keyboards. We still have all the wonderful commitments that come from having spouses, kids, mortgages, parents. We have good days - we have bad days. Far more frequently in our profession we have depression and/or anxiety. We may even struggle with more serious health issues, like COVID, or in my case, in March 2020, Thyroid Cancer.

We must remember our clients through it all. I had a client once tell me that a former attorney was quite mad at him because of the fact that he'd reoffended. This made almost no sense to me. This client sat and cried in my office because he'd angered someone he viewed as a trusted advisor. Our clients struggle - and it's not our job to judge or be upset. If a client comes to me for help it's my job to be there for them and continue helping them. To make sure they're not alone.

Consider a a first offense client and how we could be viewing them.

My average first offense client is in their late 20s-early 30s. They have a job (although right now they may not have worked in months). Often they have a kid or two. And most of them (whether they'll admit it or not) are TERRIFIED to have to call me in the first place. They're about to embark on a journey that will cost them days of work and (in some cases) thousands of dollars they may not currently have. This financial blow to them could be crippling if they're out of work.

It will cause marital strife. It will cause their kids to ask questions ("What's that you're blowing into daddy?") And even if they're able to get a great result (reduced charge or whatnot) the impact on them will follow for years. And they need to know this. Many clients ask their lawyers after court: "Wait…what happened?" I am of the opinion that if your client asks you what happened after a court appearance, somewhere along the line, you failed them.

Remember - the average DUI client does not know what a continuance is - much less a suppression hearing. Imagine if instead of business as usual we took the extra five minutes it would take a few days (or even a few minutes if needs be) before a court date to explain to the client what was going to happen, and more importantly WHY it was going to happen. Imagine if, during our initial consultation, we listened more than we talked - and were able to connect with the client on a human level. To explain to them that what they were going to go through was going to be very hard - but that they'd go through it with you at their side. Guiding them every step of the way. Not just fighting for them - but fighting along with them. Think about being that scared client - and realizing that you have someone like that with you. Regardless of the outcome - you will be a happier client. You will feel protected. Defended.

Now - your first offense clients may not look like ours. They may be younger, older, or different in every other possible way. But no matter what - you can always control the attitude that you have towards and about your clients.

Here's another important truth that many of us forget. Yes - this is a professional business. Yes - we have higher education than most of our clients. And yes - most often we know what's best for them. But at its heart, this is a customer service industry. If we do not provide good customer service - we do not get clients. We do not get referrals. We do not thrive and prosper. And frankly - we don't deserve to.

A note about fees and money during this unprecedented downturn and national crisis. Many of us are feeling the pinch in our bank accounts, but ask yourself if your clients are faring better or worse than you. Reach out to them and ask. You might find that for your clients who are on a payment schedule with you, the simple act of asking them "Do you need to adjust the date or amount? Do you need to skip a month?" will yield dividends of trust, respect, and client engagement you can't even imagine. Anecdotally I'll tell you that I personally reached out to every client and asked. Less than 5% of my clients took me up on the offer, but every single one thanked me, some tearfully.

Before you tell me that you can't afford to work for free, recognize that I'm not asking you to do that. I'm asking you to consider whether that $400 that may be the difference between food on the table for your client is the difference between it for you. If it is - and you are struggling as much as they are - by all means - care for your family. But if you can spare it, consider the benefit to your client.

We - the DUI defense bar - take up the mantle of defending one of the most vilified of all defendants: the drunk driver. As I've said repeatedly in trainings and writings, nobody likes us and nobody trusts us. Yet, we dedicate our lives to standing with our clients and defending their rights. We ensure the police and prosecutors follow the rules and treat our clients like the human beings they are.

As such, our foremost responsibility is to remember that they are those humans. And simply - to treat them that way. To help them through the forest, guide them, talk to them, and when necessary - hold their hands while we do it.

Look - we can't always win. But we can always win our clients respect. And that's what they deserve - our very best. Every day. Every time. Because no matter how bad your day has been - theirs has been worse. They have way more at stake than we do.

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