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The Accidental Pro Bono Attorney

Last week, a couple of insightful attorneys wrote posts regarding fees. Brian Tannebaum, a hard-fighting criminal defense attorney in Miami, Florida, discussed the effect the economy is having on clients trying to get money back from their attorneys — particularly after the attorney has, through his hard work, managed to keep them from being charged with crimes.

Scott Greenfield’s post notes that people believe the economy must be good for criminal defense attorneys, since they believe more people will commit crimes. Scott not only debunks this myth, but notes the negative impact the Internet generally has had on hard-fighting criminal defense lawyers trying to feed their families.

Today, I was reminded of another perspective on this: the client who believes that since you successfully represented him in the past, he owns you for life.

Today’s incident is not the first time I’ve had difficulties with a client over my fees. Issues with clients over fees are just part of the territory. It boggles my mind, though, how far some clients, former clients, potential clients and people who never will be clients are willing to go to insult, try to “guilt-trip,” or otherwise argue with me over my right to make a living.

Or just disappear after the successful resolution of their cases without paying me.

Some months ago, I was contacted by an attorney who wanted to ask me about a current client of his. The individual he asked about had been a client of mine less than a year before. In fact, I successfully represented that client three times over about a two-year period after his first girlfriend somehow heard about me and hired me to defend him on charges that he had abused her.

As new cases were filed, my client had less available cash. But he had a (new) girlfriend who was willing to foot his bills. He wanted me — because I kept winning for him — and she agreed to pay. Since they’d previously paid my fees, I foolishly agreed to a payment plan. The day I won a dismissal on his third case, they stopped paying and I never heard from them again. Until the new attorney contacted me and I learned that he had new charges.

Yesterday, I heard he was going to prison.

Now I’m not saying I could have won for him four times in a row, but I certainly think after I won the first three, he might have wanted to make sure he could come back to me again.

I tell this story not to show what a great lawyer I am, but to show that I’ve learned — the hard way — that no matter how good a job I do, this doesn’t mean I will get paid. If I don’t have the money by the time the case is finished, I’m probably not getting it.

Before I learned this lesson, I did a lot of what I call accidental pro bonowork. It took a long time before I learned that no matter how much I feel sorry for someone, no matter how much I want to help them, unless I’m willing to starve my family, lose my house and find myself unable to put gas in my car so I can travel to a client’s hearing in another county, a practice built on taking payments isn’t going to fly.

And then there’s the guy who contacted me again today. For more than a month now, he’s been trying to convince me that because I helped clean up some cases for him in Fresno and got him a result that made him and his family happy there, I “need” to clear up some cases for him in another county. For free. Because he’s out of money. Because he spent his money paying another attorney (who was unable to do the job) and me (for successfully completing the job) on the Fresno cases.

When I explained that I could not represent him — in another county, no less! — for free, he was polite enough about asking, but his persistence makes it clear (as do his words) that he thinks I should feel the necessity to do him this “favor.”

Let me say something here: I care very much about my clients. Perhaps too much sometimes. I take calls from my clients at all hours of the day or night, sometimes just to listen to them talk because they’re scared. There’s not much I can do, but I listen. When a client needs a jail visit, I go. If the visit keeps me 10 minutes, or 3 hours, it doesn’t matter: as long as I don’t have to be somewhere else, I give them whatever time they need.

But I cannot work for free. I cannot help everyone in the world, no matter how much I agree that they need help. As I’ve explained to some of them, that’s why we have public defenders.

Sidenote: There is nothing wrong with having a public defender. They won’t be able to spend the time with you that I can. They are sometimes usually overworked. But I don’t think I’ve personally ever met a public defender who was not a good attorney — although I’ve heard of some. I cannot say the same thing about private attorneys: I know plenty who are a complete waste of money.

When my wife is sick, neither the hospital nor the doctor will treat her for free. There have been times when her asthma nearly killed her. I still have to pay to have her treated. And I can’t do that if my clients don’t pay me, because as sad as it is, this is how I make my living. Being the best criminal defense attorney I know how to be is the way I pay my bills.

Vincent Hallinan (1896-1992) once said:

Lawyers make a good living off the misery of others and any lawyer not willing to go to jail for his client has no damned right being in the courtroom.

I can’t exactly say I’ve been making a good living, but that’s my own fault. For too long, I’ve bought into my clients’ views and promises regarding payment. I’ve remembered what Hallinan said about lawyers who aren’t willing to go to jail — in other words to fight hard regardless of the costs — for their clients. I’ve fought and I’ve won often enough. But I’ve confused a willingness to go to jail for my clients with a willingness to go to the poorhouse.

That can’t keep happening. I can’t keep my office open that way. I can’t feed my family. I’ve had to “harden up” a little regarding fees.

If you want a lawyer who will fight hard for you, I’m your lawyer.

But you’re going to have to pay me. For every case.