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DTCI: Client relationships and effective case management

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dtciAs lawyers, we’ve handled thousands of cases. We see new complaints weekly and draft answers and discovery while managing a full case load. The names of the plaintiffs and defendants blur into file numbers, and the allegations become routine – to us.

To our clients, the complaint and summons they receive will likely be the first such paper they’ve ever seen and, to make matters worse, the jargon contained in the papers makes them almost unintelligible. It is likely the first time they have ever been sued.

The summons may be the first document they’ve ever read commanding them to appear in court. The complaint may be the first time they have ever been accused of being careless or negligent. It is scary, hurtful, humiliating and infuriating, all at the same time. In fact, studies show that lawsuits can cause profound levels of stress and anxiety. The condition sometimes referred to as litigation stress syndrome can cause feelings of isolation, negative self-image, emotional problems, anger and fatigue and can affect relationships with spouses, children, neighbors or colleagues. (Sandra Tunajek, Dealing with Litigation Stress Syndrome, American Association of Nurse Anesthetists News Bulletin, July 2007, at 22-23; Sara C. Charles, Malpractice Litigation and its Impact on Physicians, 23 Current Psychiatric Therapy 173-80 (1986))

Both authors of this article recently had experiences in which our clients have shown us the true emotional impact that litigation can have on a new litigant. Their raw response to the litigation process served as a reminder that we must take a client’s emotional response to litigation into account – partly because it’s the right thing to do as counselors and partly because a failure to recognize the emotional toll of litigation may lead to real consequences during depositions or trial.

Andy recently learned that many defendants bring a heavy weight of anxiety to their first meeting with newly assigned defense counsel. Too often, we approach this meeting in a cavalier manner glossing over the allegations as standard language used by plaintiff’s counsel, saying it’s “nothing personal.”

To your new client, it is personal.

For instance, a new client came in recently to discuss her case. She was scared because the answer was due in two days, so she hired her own lawyer for fear that a judgment would be taken against her. The process was unfamiliar to her, and it took a while to convince her that the court would grant her an additional 30 days, something we take for granted.

As we discussed the complaint, she burst into tears while reading the allegations. Only then did I realize how quickly I had glossed over the allegations of negligence, having seen the same words a thousand times. It was the first time she had read them aloud to herself, that she was negligent in causing a little girl’s injury. It was the first time in her life that she had ever been accused of anything. “I’m not a bad person” she said repeatedly. No matter how many times I told her I knew that, she would hold up the complaint, point to the words, and say, “but they say I am, and the whole world can read this.” This meeting took several hours; not all of them do. But this time it was necessary to alleviate her fear and mistrust of a system with which she was unfamiliar and to help her understand that, just because someone accuses you of something, does not make it true or a reflection of your character.

Blaire had a slightly different experience, in that the client’s emotions weren’t readily apparent until after the verdict. The client was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which two gentlemen claimed that they were severely injured. In closing, we admitted that the jury heard some evidence of fault by our client but asked that they consider the other evidence and assign up to 50 percent fault to the plaintiffs and limit the plaintiffs’ recovery to their emergency room charges.

The jury returned its verdict and did exactly as we requested. I was thrilled. My excitement, admittedly, came from the thrill of good competition. We made an argument, and the jury accepted it. Our client, however, was in tears, and I was baffled. Our client’s own funds were never at issue in the case – she had applicable insurance coverage. It turns out that she wanted badly to have her feelings validated. She wanted the jury to believe her that the accident was not entirely her fault, and she wanted the jury to believe her that the gentlemen were not as injured as they claimed to be. The fact that the jury did believe her was more than she could handle in that moment and her tears flowed. A few days after the trial, she sent co-counsel and me a note thanking us for “being there for her.” Until then, I don’t think that I appreciated how truly vulnerable she’d felt during the trial.

In order to serve our clients effectively, we must recognize that each case is a significant matter for them. When the clients believe that we understand the significance of their cases to them, we enable them to relax and to share their stories with us. If the dialogue is open and comfortable, we may learn helpful facts that we would never have thought to seek. If, however, we fail to recognize the clients’ emotional responses to the litigation, those emotions may build up and present themselves at an inopportune time – such as during deposition or trial testimony. For instance, if counsel doesn’t take the time to learn that the client is offended by the lawsuit, counsel will lose the opportunity to help the client process that anger, and the client may take a sarcastic or rude tone with opposing counsel, which will only hinder negotiation or offend a jury. By helping the client recognize and address emotions early in the process, counsel helps to ensure that the client will be able to participate completely and freely in the defense of the case.•

__________

Andrew Hahn and Blaire Evans are litigation counsel for State Farm in Indianapolis.

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  1. On a related note, I offered the ICLU my cases against the BLE repeatedly, and sought their amici aid repeatedly as well. Crickets. Usually not even a response. I am guessing they do not do allegations of anti-Christian bias? No matter how glaring? I have posted on other links the amicus brief that did get filed (search this ezine, e.g., Kansas attorney), read the Thomas More Society brief to note what the ACLU ran from like vampires from garlic. An Examiner pledged to advance diversity and inclusion came right out on the record and demanded that I choose Man's law or God's law. I wonder, had I been asked to swear off Allah ... what result then, ICLU? Had I been found of bad character and fitness for advocating sexual deviance, what result then ICLU? Had I been lifetime banned for posting left of center statements denigrating the US Constitution, what result ICLU? Hey, we all know don't we? Rather Biased.

  2. It was mentioned in the article that there have been numerous CLE events to train attorneys on e-filing. I would like someone to provide a list of those events, because I have not seen any such events in east central Indiana, and since Hamilton County is one of the counties where e-filing is mandatory, one would expect some instruction in this area. Come on, people, give some instruction, not just applause!

  3. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  4. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  5. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

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