Every lawyer knows that the dream client is eccentric. "Eccentric" means crazy, but rich, and invested enough in the representation to pay on time. Clients who are crazy, but poor — or who are crazy and rich, but don't pay — are merely crazy, and to be avoided.
That's an old joke, but there is a bit of truth in it. First, lawyers like being paid for their services and don't like being stiffed on the bill. Second, lawyers have a morally hazardous incentive to welcome clients who want to pay them handsomely and reliably to engage in legal pursuits that might, charitably, be characterized as Quixotic.
Usually, those Quixotic quests are at least colorable — that is, they are premised on legal or factual theories that are arguable and can be advanced in good faith, even if most people might not choose to pursue them. Usually, there is at least a grain of reason behind the client's preferred strategy.
Occasionally, though, clients are simply nuts. Some of our obligations in such cases are clear: we can't sue the CIA and Abe Vigoda for beaming thoughts into the clients' head, because we have no legal or factual basis to support that claim, and it would be unethical to pursue the claim without such a basis. That ethical choice is clear: we have to turn the client down, and God willing, get them to pursue some sort of professional help.
But it's not always quite that easy. When I was a BIGLAW associate, fresh out of government service, a BIGLAW partner sent me to conduct an internal investigation for a wealthy client with a sprawling ranch in the Midwest. The client was convinced that her ex-husband had orchestrated a plot to embezzle money from her using her once-trusted employees. Over the course of the week I spent at the client's ranch, interviewing her and her employees and examining voluminous documents, it became increasingly clear to me that the client was mentally ill — perhaps a paranoid schizophrenic — and that my BIGLAW firm was charging her umpty-ump dollars per hour for me to pursue her demons for her. I had a deeply unsatisfying (and frankly humiliating) conversation with the BIGLAW partner upon my return about this, and about whether we should be taking her money. The result — he sent a different associate for Phase Two of the internal investigation, and as far as he was concerned, I would advance no further at BIGLAW.
I hold no degrees in psychology. I'm not qualified to diagnose mental illness. But I was personally morally convinced this poor woman was ill, and that her desire to spend big money on lawyers to chase down phantom embezzlement was a product of that illness. Did she have a right to spend her money that way? Absent a conservatorship, yes. Was the State Bar going to yank my card for diligently and zealously chasing down her every concern? No — probably not even though some of her concerns were based on an obsession with undetectable wiretapping by her ex-husbands' divorce lawyers, and on the way her kitchen staff communicated with co-conspirators through hand gestures. But I couldn't stomach it.
Now that I am a partner in my own small firm, accountable to a few partners who are friends, this still comes up more often than you'd think. The lines are not always crystal clear. So I'd like to hear your viewpoints.
Say a client comes to you and says that they believe they are being watched by various law enforcement agencies, and that they want you to do something about it — say, send letters to the agencies asking what's up, or file Freedom of Information Act requests with the agencies. Say that based on your interactions with the client, you're pretty sure that there is no surveillance and no investigation, and that the whole thing is part of a delusional structure. Say that what the client wants you to do — send a letter or a FOIA request — does not impinge upon anyone else's rights: it's not like suing somebody or sending a threatening cease-and-desist letter. Say that doing this for the client might even give the client some peace of mind. Say that the client is not a danger to himself or others, and would not be made subject to a conservatorship if somebody tried that.
Is it ethically wrong to do the service for the client? Must you, ethically, first try to convince the client that he is delusional? If so, how hard must you try? Does it matter at all that the cost is modest?
I know what I think, but I'd like your input.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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