As personal injury attorneys, it is easy to think that success for our clients can be measured simply by the dollar amount recovered on a case. As important as that is to most cases, it is by no means the beginning and the end of the analysis. I often tell my clients that all my work can be summarized into two goals: (1) advocate on their behalf for the case, and (2) give them enough information so they can make informed decisions, understanding the pros and cons of a given decision.
We pride ourselves on being client-centered. We care about our clients, and that means we want to do what is best each and every one of them. We also want to do a good job in how we work to achieve what is best under the circumstances. That starts with how we approach the lawyer-client relationship. It can be tricky to navigate, as every case is unique, and every person is different.
The Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs), which govern attorney ethics, impose certain duties on us. Important to this discussion are the duties of competence, diligence, and advocacy. Additionally, to achieve true success for a client, we must be mindful of what is, in my view, perhaps the most important ethics rule and attorney role: Advisor.
There have been entire volumes, journal articles, blog posts, commentary, and otherwise devoted to what these rules mean, so my below explanation is not meant to be exhaustive.
Competence requires that we have a good sense of how to handle our clients' cases—or else we learn how to handle the case—and that we do it in the right way. Diligence means that we are pursuing things as they should be pursued: communicating with the client about his or her case, chasing down leads, returning phone calls and emails, and otherwise staying on top of deadlines so that our clients' rights are being preserved and asserted in the proper ways. Advocacy means that, to the world, we are responsible for fighting for our clients' goals.
To be an advisor means, as the Washington and Oregon RPCs require, as follows: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall exercise independent professional judgment and render candid advice. In rendering advice, a lawyer may refer not only to law but to other considerations such as moral, economic, social and political factors, that may be relevant to the client's situation.”
In practice, these rules converge to guide attorneys how to achieve success for our clients. Success can be measured by meeting the client's expectations and mine. In the initial meeting, I try to assess whether I can improve the prospective client's situation. Maybe there is not enough insurance coverage, maybe the likely value of the case is small enough that I would only be taking money out of the her pocket, maybe he is at fault for the injuries. We take this responsibility seriously, and I regularly decline to represent people if I don't think they will be helped by my involvement in the case.
If I do take the case, I need to be honest with the client about what I can and cannot do. Personal injury cases are about recovering monetary compensation to balance a harm done to a person through another's carelessness. That's a fancy way of saying we are chasing money. We cannot heal injuries, we cannot pay medical bills, and we cannot bring loved ones back to life. Recognizing, discussing, and understanding this huge limitation is the a critical step in achieving success for our clients.
There is a lot of uncertainty in personal injury cases. We do our best to give our clients enough information to make important decisions in their cases. Even if we are not able to meet our clients' goals in terms of money, I feel that I have successfully represented a person if I knew how to handle their case, I pursued it in the right ways, I advocated on their behalf, and regardless of the outcome, my clients understood the process. All of this is not to mention the intangible human connection I am always trying to achieve: to make sure my clients had their concerns addressed, that they felt understood, and that they felt I was on their side.