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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Clients go public after Ontario estate lawyer charges them for complaint against him, so I'm taking fewer demanding clients

I've been a lawyer for a long time. A very long time. Most days I absolutely love the job and my clients. I see my role as a guide for those who have to navigate their way through the legal system. I'm neither the boss who tells the client what to do, nor the servant who does everything she is told to do. We work together.

Something I've come to understand over the years is that clients don't always see things the same way I do. This may the first time they've been involved in an estate, but it's not my first time. They have lost a loved one, but I haven't. The family that is fighting isn't my family. Though I may have a great deal of compassion for a client who comes into my office for help, they are emotional and unsure about the legal system and my role.

When I advise a client about what to do, my advice is an amalgam of my knowledge, my experience, their goals, and their circumstances. I try my best to toss in a big, healthy dose of reality to keep the client grounded. Most of the time, the working relationship is great and at the end of the legal proceedings we all part as friends.

Every couple of years, however, I run up against a client who simply does not listen, or takes advice from too many people and ends up confused, or who honestly thinks that I should do everything he or she wants, no matter how ridiculous or pointless or spiteful. These are the clients who are so wrapped up emotionally in the estate that they cannot think rationally. My heart goes out to them, but let's face it, they are difficult clients for me and my staff. No matter how great a job I do for them, they are not going to be happy. They get not only my legal advice, but many extra hours of my time and a shoulder to lean on. You better believe that the constant propping up of distraught people can be tough on me too.

So when I read a story on CBC about a family who made a complaint to the Ontario Bar Association about their estate lawyer, I had mixed feelings. To me, the fact that they called the media to "go public" meant that they were actively searching for a way to hurt the lawyer. They won't get anything out of going public other than bitter satisfaction that they've damaged someone's reputation and business. Creating backlash seems to be an extremely popular activity these days. The prevailing attitude seems to be that if you're unhappy, try to make sure everyone else is too.Click here to read the story.

The article talks about a woman who didn't like how her lawyer handled her father's estate. Her complaint to the Law Society found that the lawyer didn't do anything wrong. That part isn't really unusual, since as I said, many clients don't really understand the legal system and are not sure whether it was used to their full advantage. It was after that finding that it all went off the rails. The lawyer sent the family a bill for responding to the complaint. They were offended and went to the media.

The media inflated the story to make it as sensational as possible. Their headline was "Lawyer charges grieving family thousands for time spent responding to complaint against him". It wasn't just a client involved, never mind a vindictive person; it was a "grieving family". The "thousands" referenced was in reality $2,300.

In this lawyer's shoes, I wouldn't have charged for responding to the complaint because all that did was ramp up emotions that were already out of control. But I can see his point. He would have just sat through the complaint process where people pointed fingers and made accusations even though he had handled the estate properly. I'd be ticked off too, as would anyone in any job who was wrongly accused. All estate lawyers get pretty tired of those few clients who exist in an eternal emotional frenzy and simply cannot be calmed down no matter what you do.

I'm getting smarter about choosing my clients. After putting in this many years, I feel that I'm entitled to pick my clients just as clients pick their lawyers. I am winding down my willingness to invest my time and effort in clients whose emotions and attitudes render them completely unable to think straight. I just don't see the point in dealing with the truly impossible clients anymore, even though they are the ones who possibly need me the most. I can handle difficult clients but I'll no longer work with the completely irrational ones. Otherwise, I'll be the next lawyer whose clients complain that I'm not doing the job. I recently had a client who emailed me 9 times in one day - and got replies - then complained (to me, not to the Law Society) that I was not in close enough touch with her.

At the end of the work day, I want to go home to my family just like everyone else does. Life is too short to spend defending myself from bitterness. If the end result of "going public" is that fewer lawyers will handle your case, so be it.

*The attached photo is one I took of a corner of the St. John's courthouse.

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