There are few things that excite a plaintiff’s attorney more than
pursuing justice for a client, standing up for the underdog, and (usually
against long odds) getting the client a great result. Even though such
a case often involves a background of tragedy, the ability to get a great
result for the client creates some measure of peace in knowing that there
was accountability for the defendant’s wrongful conduct.
Similarly, nothing can deflate a plaintiff’s lawyer more than determining
there is no potential avenue for victory on behalf of a client who was
seriously injured by another’s wrongful conduct. In some instances,
it is clear almost immediately that nothing can be done for the client.
In others, the initial prospect associated with the case may be bright,
only to learn later that victory is unattainable or there is no cause
to advocate. For example, a client may not have a case because too much
time has passed since the injury, critical evidence needed to prove the
case cannot be found, or the wrongful conduct at issue is not actionable
under the law.
I’ve had to deliver the bad news associated with the latter scenario
more times than I would have liked. The response I receive is often one
of confusion. The client struggles to understand how there could be no
case when he or she was badly hurt by someone else. From the client’s
vantage point (and often mine as well), the result seems anything but
right or fair. More than once, these conversations have ended with a client
expressing feelings of hopelessness and me becoming increasingly jaded
about the fact that the justice system sometimes seems to work least effectively
for those who need it most.
The question I’ve been forced to wrestle with over the last couple years is
what service can I actually provide to the client who does not have a winnable case? The answer I’ve landed upon is a simple one—genuine compassion.
This answer became clear to me recently after conducting an intake with
some potential clients. I sat with the family for about two hours and
listened to their story. I tried to ask questions to show I was truly
paying attention, offered some humor when it seemed appropriate, and (most
importantly) made no effort to rush them along. I waited patiently, letting
them tell me every detail they believed to be important—even if
it did not seem important to me in terms of assessing the merits of their
case. When the meeting was complete, I doubted that I could help them
in pursuing a case. After conducting some research to confirm that disposition,
I sent them a letter explaining why I believed they did not have a viable
case and wishing them the best of luck.
That is usually where the story would end. But a week or so later, I received
an email from my paralegal. The family had written the firm, speaking
about how blessed they had been by the service we had provided and our
efforts to assist them. I was speechless. From my perspective, I had not
performed any real service for them. Yet, from their vantage point, the
converse was true. As I gave the matter some thought, I realized that
a lawyer always has the ability to offer a valuable service to a client.
Maybe not money. Maybe not accountability from the wrongdoer. But always,
at a minimum, a listening ear with a willingness to bear another person’s
suffering—even if just for an hour or two. In this world of social
media, digital communications, and rushed interactions, patience and compassion
are rare commodities. It is important to keep in mind that those services
may be the closest thing to justice some clients ever receive.