Day-to-day operations in a typical law office are much more tedious than television would have you believe. It’s a lot of paperwork. “CYA letters,” creating paper trails are a must.
As I often do, I recently had a conversation with a client in which I reminded her about some documents I needed her to provide me. Of course, as all attorneys know, if there’s no paper trail, the conversation never happened. So naturally I had to draft a reminder letter to my client, reminding her again about our reminder conversation we just had.
With our deadline for these documents quickly approaching, you can imagine the relief I felt when I saw a handwritten envelope addressed to me from this particular client in my mailbox. I opened the letter, expecting a reply. Instead, I found a grocery list. That’s all – just a grocery list. It included cucumbers and some other items whose spelling made me guess. But it clearly was not a federal or state income tax return.
This incident got me thinking about what other interesting mail I have received over the years. On the positive side, I get thank you cards. One time a satisfied client even baked me some tasty brownies and sent them in a FedEx box. (I would not have eaten them if they were from a disgruntled former client!) On the stranger side, I have received a cardboard diagram complete with dozens of pills glued to it from a client wishing to help me visualize what medications she took. The street value of the painkillers probably was significant, but my boss at the time made me flush this correspondence. Back in the pre-camera phone days, another client took the time to photograph, develop and snail mail me a pic of a toilet full of neon orange urine, so I could better understand the side effects of some anti-psychotic meds. You can imagine my elation when I opened that letter.
They say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” What the heck are you supposed to make when life gives you cucumbers? Pickles, I guess. And this grocery list had suddenly put me into quite a pickle of a situation. Our already-extended deadline was approaching, and opposing counsel was accusing my client and I of stalling.
A normal person would see this list and give the client the benefit of the doubt. Simple mistake, right? But I’m not a normal person. I’m a lawyer, damn it! We are an industry that divides the world into “lawyers” and “non-lawyers.” Furthermore, I certainly do not deal with anything close to normal people when it comes to opposing counsel.
How do you inform a client that a grocery list is not a satisfactory substitute for income verification? How do you tell opposing counsel that you need more time, because your client has been delayed in the produce department? None of this was covered in law school. There’s no continuing education course on this subject either. I’ve checked. It does not exist.
When in doubt, you Bill-Clinton it. Yes, I have made our former president into a verb. But whenever I use this expression, people instantly know what I mean. You find a way to squeeze an acceptable droplet of truth out of a convoluted mess and share that tiny snapshot of an explanation with the key players in your case. You do this in a way to avoid your client accusing you of accusing her of being absent-minded and in a way that keeps opposing counsel from pursuing the nuclear option of contempt of court.
In short, life as a lawyer is a constant juggling act. Sometimes you get thrown an extra bowling pin to juggle. Other times it’s a cucumber or chainsaw. You just need to continue riding that unicycle and keep all the balls in the air.