One of the old maxims in business is “underpromise and overdeliver.” That holds true in most businesses and professions I can think of, including the law.
As a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, however… there’s a line somewhere.
Most of the time we deal with people who have very little legal experience – and almost always no relevant personal injury experience. If they have an idea in mind about what their case is worth, it often comes from either (a) news reports of big verdicts/settlements (ie McDonalds coffee case), or (b) what some friend/neighbor/coworker got in a settlement several years ago.
So when we discuss settlement or trial, our job is to inform our clients so that they can make the right decisions. If they have a great case, they still need to know that juries do weird things. Slam dunk cases can be lost. Juries can award medical bills of $200,000 and $10,000 in pain and suffering and think they are doing you a favor. Juries tend to make the right decision, but there are always horror stories of juries who make decisions on bad assumptions, or because they didn’t like someone’s shoes, or whatever.
If your client’s case is dicier – questionable liability, major issues of some kind, whatever… you have to be blunt with your assessment of chances. You have to be able to explain that, say, juries often don’t award anything for minor impact auto cases, or that their treating doctor will connect the accident and injuries, but not with as much gusto as the defense’s doctor.
You have to do all of this in a way that clients understand the potential pitfalls, but still trust your abilities and still know that you believe in them and will fight for them.
If you are too blunt with your assessment of trial potential, your client might start to doubt you. They might think they didn’t hire the right lawyer. They might spread bad word of mouth.
On the other hand, if you are too rosy, and if things don’t go well, they will doubt you. They will think they didn’t hire the right lawyer. They might spread bad word of mouth. They might even sue you for malpractice, breach of warranty, or something creative like that.
The key is riding the line – staying honest and blunt, but with the right level of optimism. At the very least, in every case your client needs to understand that we never know exactly what a jury is going to do. The case depends on 12 (or 6 or 8 or whatever) people we’ve never met and only get a limited amount of time to talk to beforehand. It depends on whether all witnesses show up, whether they come across well in stressful situations, whether the judge applies the law correctly, etc, etc, etc – many things that we just can’t know until they happen. We have a good idea what will happen, but you just never know.
(Howard Zimmerle is a personal injury, medical malpractice, nursing home malpractice, trial lawyer in Rock Island, Illinois, with an office in Davenport, Iowa. He can be reached at 309-794-1660 or hzimmerle [at] mjwlaw.com).