Solo Network

Sympathy Trap

When Good Intentions Turn Into Bad Cases

Posted Jan 1, 2004 3:58 AM CDT
By Margaret Graham Tebo

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Neil S. Rubin knows firsthand the pitfalls of allowing his sympathies to overrule the warning bells in his head.

The Beachwood, Ohio, solo figured he wouldn’t make a lot of money by helping an actor-turned-carpenter declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy. But he says he took the case because at this stage in his career, he’s taking just about everything that comes in the door. Plus, the guy was nice enough and seemed to need his help.

Ditto on his decision to help a disabled woman whose ex-boyfriend stole her disability settlement and caused her house to fall into foreclosure.

It didn’t take long, however, before both cases turned into quagmires.

The carpenter disappeared for months after the initial consultation, finally reappearing to ask, “If I died, would my family be obligated to pay my bills?” After the client left, Rubin risked a complaint of violation of attorney-client privilege and called a local suicide hotline to ask for a trained professional to check on his client. (The client did not harm himself, and no disciplinary complaint was filed against Rubin.)

The disabled woman, who was on a variety of medications and under the care of a psychiatrist, called one night and left a long rambling message on Rubin’s office voice mail. She sobbed that her life was a mess, and nobody cared about her. Listening to the message later that eve­ning, Rubin says he half expected it to end with the sound of a gunshot. It didn’t, but Rubin paged the woman’s psychiatrist and reported the call, just in case.

Although Rubin didn’t earn a dime on either of these cases, he says the lesson they taught him has been invaluable: Don’t accept cases based on empathy, and set bound­aries so that paying clients remain paying clients and pro bono work stays pro bono. Rubin now charges a $75 initial consultation fee, which he credits to clients’ future legal fees if they end up hiring him and paying a retainer. This fee, he says, helps him avoid getting drawn into client dilemmas that could bankrupt him financially as well as emotionally.

Vetting It Right

Massachusetts solo Frank Kautz also knows the potential pitfalls of pro bono by default. To avoid situations like Rubin’s, Kautz doesn’t take cases he assumes will end up as pro bono. Rather, he only takes certified pro bono cases that have been vetted by his local bar referral service.

And Kautz doesn’t keep more than two open pro bono cases at a time, no matter how sad the sob story. To reinforce this rule, Kautz keeps family photos on his office credenza to remind him that he needs to keep paying clients coming through the door to support his family.

Another benefit of doing pro bono through a referral ser­vice is that Kautz can turn down clients whose stories present red flags. He knows the service will try to help the client find another lawyer, so he doesn’t feel he’s turning away needy people who have no recourse.

Kautz says it’s especially important to have pro bono clients sign agreements spelling out the scope of the attorney’s duties.

“Sometimes, when people are getting something for nothing, they expect more than if they’re paying for it,” Kautz says.

New Hampshire attorney Bruce L. Dorner agrees that boundary-setting is even more important with pro bono clients than with those who pay for services. He explains to his pro bono clients that they get the same access and the same services as any other client--no more, no less.

“Good pro bono clients are considerate and understand that they’re getting services for free, and you don’t have to do this for them,” Dorner says. “Bad pro bono clients believe you’re their personal champion, on call day and night.”

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