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The lawyer as a counselor
Most law firms advertise that they boast a roster of attorneys and counselors at law. The second role played by most attorneys, that of counselor, may be the most underappreciated and underutilized value a lawyer can bring to any given client matter.
All clients expect their attorney knows the law and can provide advice regarding the liabilities that need to be considered prior to taking a certain course of action. However, true value is added when an attorney provides counsel regarding whether a particular course of action is advisable.
Two of the most popular topics about which attorneys receive questions are litigation exposure and taxes. Quite often, a client will ask some variation of the questions: “Will this action get me sued?” or “Can I sue this person?” Or, just as common, a client will ask, “How can I avoid paying taxes at this time?”
Giving a simple answer often is not simple. In fact, the best lawyers often pry deeper to try to determine a client’s true motivation in asking such a question. Even if a valid legal claim exists, is it beneficial for the client to bring the claim or is the client just upset? Will the cost of litigation outweigh the potential benefit? Does deferring a tax obligation really benefit the client in the long-run when the client’s long-term objectives are considered? Quite often, a lawyer can provide counsel beyond the legality of a given matter and can provide deeper insights into the benefits or implications of a certain course of action.
One advantage a lawyer has in providing counsel is that he or she often has addressed a similar fact pattern in the past. While a client may only face high stakes litigation once or twice, or may only have a couple of opportunities to make a significant tax election, lawyers see related issues on a daily basis. This experience allows conscientious lawyers to draw parallels with related cases and provide a client perspective that the client may lack in a given situation. In some instances, a certain course of action may be completely legal yet completely inadvisable.
Experience also enables a lawyer to help counsel clients through various disputes. The legal system has instituted a variety of procedures to try to resolve disputes before they reach full litigation. Civil disputes may include court-ordered mediation and case evaluation, where a panel of legal experts attempt to determine what the case’s potential value is. In family law, many practitioners are beginning to push the concept of “collaborative divorce,” where the parties mediate, sometimes with the assistance of outside experts, to determine a fair outcome without resorting to the expense and uncertainty of a full litigation matter. While legal considerations factor into mediation and other dispute resolution practices, there also is an art to navigating processes where recommendations are not legally binding but may be in the best interest of a client.
Ultimately, while lawyers present the client with a legal strategy, many of the most important decisions affecting a civil litigant, business owner, or family are to be made by the client himself or herself. Even when a lawyer represents a friend as a client, the best lawyers share dispassionate, disinterested advice and perspectives that can help a client make an informed decision that addresses all reasonable implications and considerations, including those beyond the legality of a certain course of action.
Finally, sometimes the lawyer’s job is simply to listen. Sometimes a client simply needs to vent or to understand that the challenge he or she is facing is not unique before getting back to work. The best lawyers look beyond legal considerations to help clients achieve the best outcome.