Norm Pattis is weary of questions:

[UPDATE: I have removed some of the information originally quoted, since the original post by Norm has apparently been taken down.]

I realize this sounds harsh, but I am simply undone by the sorrow, the rage, the anger and sometimes the sheer irrationality of folks caught within the law’s vice. My firm is a small shop, but we have one paralegal whose job it is to serve as the communication point for clients. He engages in a sort of triage with the thousand and one questions that arise in a day. Still, there are needs that go unmet, clients who believe that we do not pay enough attention to their needs.

The trickiest part of being a lawyer is knowing which cases to take. No lawyer can get along with everyone. There are simply bad marriages. I’ve had more than a few. I have moved to withdraw when some client’s needs overwhelm me and my firm. 

As Norm concedes, this failing makes him a "less than perfect lawyer." It does. A perfect lawyer informs the client of each and every event in the case, including informal correspondence with third parties or with opposing counsel.

But there are only so many hours in the day. Even if a lawyer obsessed about their cases every hour of the day — which we don’t want them to do, since it will cloud their judgment — they still wouldn’t be able to explain every hypothetical possibility to the client.

Fact is, if a client wants a perfect lawyer, they need to find one willing to devote their entire practice and personal life to their case alone.

The rest of us imperfect lawyers use two techniques: triage and ticklers.

Triage is just like in the hospitals: we attend to the most pressing matters first. David Dow, who represents defendants on Texas’ death row, is one of the most respected lawyers in America, yet his The Autobiography of an Execution concedes letting cases go by the wayside for months, sometimes years. He’s a less than perfect lawyer, and understandably so: he can’t hunt down every trace of exculpatory evidence for a client whose execution is years away when another one of his clients is weeks, days or hours away from death. My triage in civil litigation doesn’t carry as much gravity, but it’s no less real: I must prioritize the most urgent matters. I do the same for every client when their matter becomes the most urgent matter.

A "tickler" (part of a "tickler file") is a funny name that lawyers dreamed up for "reminder." Litigators in particular are always on some sort of deadline, either by way of the statute of limitations, a deadline for filing or responding to a motion, the closing of discovery, the submission of expert reports, the preparation for a hearing, the taking of a deposition, or trial. Sometimes, the necessary work can be done in minutes. Sometimes it will take weeks. The ticklers are ways of interrupting the triage to point out that work due later needs to be started now.

In theory, it should be easy to incorporate client contact into this system by making ticklers for client conduct. There are, however, only so many hours in the day. More importantly, attention, like time, is a limited resource. I can only give a client a status update when I am in the office, which is only when I’m not at a court conference, a hearing, a deposition, on trial, or otherwise out. But when I’m in the office, I’m bombarded every day with dozens of calls, emails, letters, filings and, yes, ticklers for other matters. More distractions equals less attention.

I don’t know the specifics of Norm’s practice, but I presume that he, like most criminal defense lawyers, represents clients on a fixed fee. I represent clients on a contingent fee, and I bet Norm does, too, when he files civil suits. We are thus both not paid for our time, not paid to consult, not paid to teach; we are paid to fight the whole battle from start to finish.

If you want someone to teach you the intricacies and contradictions of the law, that’s available, just be ready for $60 for each courtesy email. But if you’ve hired someone on a contingent or fixed fee to do battle, it’s not unreasonable for them to contact you only as necessary and as useful for your case.

For my clients, if you haven’t heard in a while and don’t know the status, please write or call, and we’ll put your call in the triage and the tickler file and get back to you. If we don’t get back to you in a few days, call again. (Email is even better, since I get it outside the office.) If you’ve learned of or thought something interesting, please write or call, and I’ll consider it. Otherwise, I’ll contact you when necessary and useful for your case, such as when you need to review an allegation, prepare for discovery, or consider an offer, and I’ll forward you the court filings I made on your behalf.

Norm considers this "harsh." I don’t. The vast majority of my clients appropriately contact me when they genuinely have questions about the status of their case, then ask me a handful of questions. We discuss it until they understand, and then I get back to work. That’s fine. It’s reasonable and appropriate for clients to expect it.

My clients are, by and large, polite people with reasonable expectations. Indeed, some cases require substantial investigation pre-suit, are on appeal, or are delayed by the defendant’s bankruptcy, leading to months of inactivity, and yet some of those clients apologize to me for interrupting my work when they check in after a few weeks. They don’t have to; it’s their case, their right.

Only a tiny fraction wear out their welcome. For those, there really isn’t a question as to what should be done. The lawyer is unhappy with the client and the client is unhappy with the lawyer. Representation should not be undertaken or should be ended as soon as possible. Easy to say, hard to do.