The (un)likeable lawyer


Recently I took over representation in a divorce case from a younger, less-experienced attorney. That attorney sought my advice on what I thought she should have done differently. Being the mentoring type, I suggested she drop by the next time she was in my neighborhood and we could discuss it. Thus we met last week to discuss her work.

In the midst of our discussion she made a comment that I suspect many lawyers would make about a client who had recently discharged them, “I worry she [the client] didn’t like me.” Since I didn’t think the client liked me either, I suspect she was correct. However I know she’d have been better off being indifferent to the matter.

Years ago my counselor told me that the moment a counselor began worrying about whether her patients liked her she stopped being an effective counselor. In any advice-giving profession the desire to be liked makes that professional’s ego an aspect of the relationship. And it is impossible to provide dispassionate advice when ego is involved.

I’m sometimes accused of being rude, abrasive, and blunt–in short, unlikeable. We all have our flaws and one of mine is a less-than-ideal bedside manner. However, while I strive not to be rude and abrasive–blunt is sometimes a useful way to get through to a client after less direct attempts have failed–I attribute the desire to be liked by clients to be an affliction of the newly licensed. Prospective clients often hire attorneys they “like” and newly licensed attorneys are happy for any new client. Thus, being likeable may appear vital to their ability to attract clients.

Being liked by a client can be a natural consequence of doing good work, treating the client with dignity, and helping the client achieve his or her goals. However, being liked by the client is not something that thoughtful experienced attorneys actually strive for. They know that striving to be liked by the client renders an attorney less effective because it causes that attorney to temper his or her advice.

Much good lawyering involves telling clients what they do not want to hear: your goals are not realistic; while you can do something, you are better off not doing it; what you are saying lacks credibility [and you either need to tell me the truth or provide me corroboration]; your actions are undermining your goals [and you either need to change your actions or reduce your goals]; you are not doing the work I need you to do to effectively represent you. Once an attorney starts worrying about whether the client likes him or her, that attorney is constrained from giving such advice. And once an attorney is constrained from giving such advice, the ability to achieve that client’s realistic goals is diminished.

Being liked is wonderful. Cognizance about being respectful and treating clients with dignity is wonderful. Worrying about being liked is professional malpractice.

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