Meeting prospective clients, I encounter varying degrees of knowledge about the process of hiring a criminal defense lawyer. Right now, most of my clients are referred to me by other lawyers. Referrals from previous clients come in a close second. Those two types of clients rarely ask a lot of questions for some reason.
Occasionally, I get a referral with several degrees of separation. Those prospective clients tend to have questions. Lots of them. Often, the consultation feels a bit like a job interview. I try my best to be brutally honest.
Whereas the majority of people only care that someone they trust told them to call me and that I have a nice office, suits that fit (more or less), and a bar number, some people need numbers. They want numbers about my experience, my practice, the system, and their case. It’s because numbers make an unscientific decision like hiring a lawyer seem somewhat scientific. It’s a complex decision, and the idea of boiling the process down to comparing statistics comforts some people.
Unfortunately, a little knowledge can be a bad thing. A numbers-obsessed prospective client can easily end up worse-informed than someone who doesn’t ask any questions. The problem isn’t the information, but their perspective. Information, especially numbers, can be misleading without context. I saw that first hand a little while back.
I often have people come to me claiming their current lawyer won’t return phone calls. They complain their attorney is generally unavailable when they need advice. Seeking a new lawyer, one particular client in that situation came to see me and brought family members. They had a barrage of questions for me. The last question was how many clients I had.
They wanted an exact number, so I told them. At the time, the number was fourteen. I immediately realized they weren’t going to hire me.
The number startled them. They asked me how I kept them all straight. Fourteen seemed like a huge number to them. Without a frame of reference, I might as well have told them I was too busy to handle the case. No spiel about half of those cases being appellate or post-sentencing matters where I was just waiting for a ruling would’ve taken the sting out of the number fourteen. Even if I had explained that some of the cases were civil traffic matters with final hearings set that week, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing short of shit-talking about other lawyers and their caseloads would’ve helped the least bit. Fourteen seemed too big to them, and I instantly knew I’d lost the client for that reason. I was right.
Curious, I looked up the lawyer I think they hired. They didn’t stick with the one they had, who’s actually great. The guy they chose had a great website. That’s about it. It boasts that he’s handled “thousands” of cases in ten years of practice. Assuming “thousands” means at least two thousand, I calculate that to be over two hundred cases a year.
I’m a lawyer, not a mathematician, but I have a tough time seeing how that ends up with a caseload anywhere near fourteen. I suspect that’s impossible. Over forty seems more likely. I wonder how he answered their caseload question, or if they asked him at all. Maybe his website was just too nice.
Every client seems to dream of the once-a-mega-volume lawyer with an unbelievable amount of experience who decided to pare his practice down to a select few cases. Although that’s not completely unheard of, it’s unusual. I’ve yet to see it on such a grand scale and in under a couple decades of experience.
A little math would’ve made them see that fourteen isn’t that much. A little math would’ve made it clear that thousands of clients in a decade, something indicative of the experience factor most people consider very important in a lawyer, is a lot more than fourteen.
What makes the numbers game a game is the fact a lawyer can make something more frightening than the number fourteen turn into something appealing simply by presenting it differently. Most people won’t do the math. They’ll be impressed with thousands of cases worth of experience in ten years, and they’ll worry about being one of fourteen.
The knowledge the family sought should have served them well, but they presumed things based on numbers they didn’t understand. That’s why playing the numbers game is tough. Asking a lawyer about caseload isn’t a bad thing, but a point of reference or a little calculation is much more important than all the raw data in the world. In the end, hiring a lawyer is more than just a numbers game.