At first glance, I thought Brandon was going to be a great client for the firm. He was dressed well, had a thriving business, and had no qualms about paying our retainer. This was going to be a good relationship. Brandon wanted to hire us to help him go after about six businesses who stiffed him.
James called me into his office and said to just run with the file. I’d worked for James for about three years now, and he was confident I knew the ropes when it came to handling civil litigation files. James sent Brandon an email letting him know I would be handling the file.
“Dear Brandon: My associate Jordan will be handling your cases. Please continue to copy me on emails, as I will be supervising, but Jordan will be your point of contact. Thanks. -James.”
The next morning, I got into the office after getting back from court and checked my voicemails. “Jordan, it’s Brandon. Have those lawsuits been filed? I’m eager to get started!” I returned his call quickly. I didn’t want to cost James a client. But how could I possibly review his file and initiate a lawsuit in less than one day?
“Brandon, it’s Jordan. I got your voicemail. No, I haven’t filed suit yet. I still need to evaluate your file and make sure we file something that is appropriate. These things take time, and I’m not going to file something in court that is shitty. A shitty filing will waste your money and make me look stupid. I’m not going to do that, and James wouldn’t let me even if I wanted to.”
“Are you sure your firm can handle this? There are some bigger firms in town I considered hiring before retaining you guys. I just thought we’d be moving a little quicker, you know? Maybe I need a law firm that has more resources…”
I could feel the pressure. He could have hired a bigger firm, but he chose us…
“Brandon, I apologize. I was in court this morning. For a client with a very important hearing that required all of my attention. When I begin drafting your lawsuit, which will be very soon, you will have all of my attention. I will have the lawsuit to you by Friday, I promise, and I’m sorry for the delay.” I had to appease him so we didn’t lose the client.
“Fine, but I really need to move on this. I want to nail those fuckers! Beat them into the ground for good. That’s what I’m paying you for! If I have to pay you more I will, but I want this done quickly!”
“You got it. That’s what we’re going to do. Talk to you on Friday.”
I wasn’t going to lose James a good client. I would set aside all my other work to get this done for him. During the week, Brandon kept sending me blog excerpts and other “legal research” he had found on the internet. None of it was from our jurisdiction, and most involved matters in federal court that were not even arguably related to his case. Some of what he sent me was just downright wrong, and written by bloggers who aren’t even lawyers. I couldn’t tell him it was stupid, though. He would hit the roof and fire us for sure.
Friday afternoon I sent Brandon a draft copy of the lawsuit, copying James. In it, we sued the competing corporation for breach of contract, requesting consequential damages. About an hour after hitting the “send” button, I received a phone call from Brandon, furious:
“Jordan, what the fuck is this shit? I wanted to sue the board of directors! Individually! And I want punitive damages! They can’t just breach a contract like that and expect to get away with it! I want them sent to jail! I even did all the goddamn work for you! I thought you were aggressive! Are you some kind of pussy or something? I think I’m going to fire your firm. This is unacceptable! You need to learn to listen to me! This is horrible customer service!”
I felt terrible. How did I manage to lose a client like that? I should have listened to what Brandon said. I went to James and let him know what happened:
“James, can we talk? Brandon is ready to fire us. I’m so sorry. I thought I did a good job on this, but apparently I didn’t. He said my customer service is terrible, and maybe he’s right… I didn’t listen to him. I didn’t mean to cost you a client. But Brandon is insistent that we sue the board individually, ask for punitive damages, and refer the matter to the District Attorney. I just don’t think there is a basis for any of that. And he sent me all this “research” but none of it was helpful. But I didn’t want to tell him that.”
James reviewed the paperwork and looked at me. “Brandon isn’t our customer, he’s our client. I don’t really care if he thinks our “customer service” was bad, or if he fires us. We’re not in the business of making people feel happy. We are in the business of being effective, competent, and ethical lawyers. You did a good job on this assignment, but you’ve done a bad job on client control. You have to control the client and the case – you can’t let the client control you.”
“Should I call him?”
“Jordan, let me handle Brandon. But I want you to see how I do it.”
James called Brandon and asked him to come to our office to discuss.
When Brandon showed up, we all met in the conference room. James told him that we had evaluated his file, and there there is no basis to sue the board of directors all individually. We cannot get punitive damages in this case, because punitive damages are not available for breach of contract – and there is no tort for a willful or malicious breach of contract. James explained that we don’t make the law, and we’re sorry you think it’s unfair. If we do it your way, they might even turn around and sue you, or ask the judge to sanction you, for filing frivolous claims. And the matter is not getting referred to the prosecutor because nothing criminal happened. The defendants simply breached a contract.
Brandon was not happy.
“James, we need to scare them! Just draft the lawsuit, sue them individually, and ask for shitloads of punitive damages! I’m sure they’ll crack. I’m paying you to be a bulldog! Get the prosecutor to at least ask them some questions, for Christ’s sake! I even did most of the research myself, so I do’t see what the issue is. I found this case out in Colorado where they got like a million dollars in punitive damages! The individuals even went to jail!”
“Listen, I just explained to you that if we…” James said, as Brandon cut him off…
“You do realize that I’m the customer, here, right? And I think I’m entitled to better customer service. I sent your associate all the research I did on this case like a week ago and he didn’t even use any of it! This is bullshit! I talked to this other lawyer, and she said she would be willing to go after them individually and ask for punitive damages. Why shouldn’t I hire her? Or a big firm? Just do what I say, or I’ll take my business somewhere else. I’m the customer here.”
James, a man of few words, stared at Brandon almost with disgust. James always knew how to control the room. There was dead silence, until James began to speak in a quiet, yet very firm, authoritative voice:
“Brandon, please be quiet, and let me talk for a second. Let’s be very clear about something. I’m the lawyer. You’re the client. You’re not our “customer.” We get paid to direct the litigation. If you don’t like the direction we take it, you get to fire us and hire someone else. I’m not your mommy, and my job isn’t to make you feel happy. We are here to do what is in your best interest. And I don’t think the “aggressive” direction you want to take this litigation in is in your best interest, Actually, I think it’s stupid. So I’m not going to do that. And you had better be damn sure that you understand I am not going to compromise my credibility with the court, opposing counsel, or anyone else just because you want me to. Not now, or not ever. You’re just not worth it to me.”
“I just…” Brandon began to say..
“I’m talking. Do not interrupt me. And while we’re delighted that you decided to do research for us, none of it is relevant to this case. We wasted your money and my time reviewing it. Since you’re so smart, I’m beginning to think you don’t need a lawyer, given that your vast array of experience in a courtroom has made you an expert. How many cases have you ever taken to trial, Brandon? Please tell me.”
Brandon looked down at the table, sheepishly. “I just wanted to…”
“If what we say makes you sad, or perhaps hurts your self esteem well, I’m terribly sorry. Hire someone who will pat you on the head and rub your belly… someone who will lie and tell you that your research was very helpful, which it wasn’t, to give you great “customer service.” Hire someone who will do whatever you tell them to do because it makes you feel happy, even though it might get you into trouble. And when you fall on your face and get sued for malicious prosecution, I’m sure you’ll still feel really happy, just delighted, about the great “customer service” you got.
The room got quiet…
“So what do you want, Brandon, a belly rub or competent representation?” James asked, looking Brandon directly in the eye.
“…you’re right.” Brandon sighed.
“Good. We’ve wasted enough of everyone’s time discussing this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other clients who actually listen to my advice that need my attention.”
Brandon called me later that afternoon and apologized. He explained that he was just eager to recover money he was owed and got caught up on the moment. I told him that I understand, and we’re going to do the best we can to get that money back.
Later that year we had judgments against all the defendants.