Since attorneys go into the legal profession because they want to help people, it’s hard to tell clients that they cannot be helped. It takes an excellent lawyer-equivalent of a doctor’s bedside manner to give clients bad news without upsetting them. Too often, attorneys try to delay or sugarcoat the bearing of bad news.
Today’s Supreme Court disciplinary opinion, In the Matter of G. Turner Perrow, Jr., 396 S.C. 273, 721 S.E.2d 785 (2011), involved an attorney who went to too-great lengths to avoid telling a client she had no case. Perrow was retained to recover funds for unused vacation time from client’s former employer. Perrow’s investigation learned that, pursuant to company policy, client was not owed any money for unused vacation time. Rather than inform client of this, he assured client that the matter was progressing. Eventually he informed the client that he had an offer from her company and that he was willing to cut his fee so that she would net $442.32. Client eventually accepted the proposal. When she hadn’t received the funds in almost two months, she contacted Perrow again. Perrow wrote back apologizing for the delay and provided her with a check for $442.32 written on his general account. He indicates he provided her these funds because he knew she needed the money.
It’s not clear how this matter got reported to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel but the Supreme Court opinion doesn’t indicate Perrow self-reported and his client would be the only other person likely to know that Perrow provided her these funds. Perrow’s ethics violation was failing to keep his client informed of and misrepresenting the status of her case. However, Perrow’s lack of communication and misrepresentations all inured to his client’s benefit: he’s out $442.32 that his client would never have received but for his unwillingness to provide her honest but accurate information about her claim.
One has to feel sorry for an attorney who would dig into his own pocket to avoid giving a client bad news and then ended up punished for it. How ironic that Perrow’s generosity got him a public reprimand. It would be even more ironic if it was his client who reported him.