Litigation Strategies Part III: Bulldog Lawyers

Clients are funny.  When they need representation in litigation, some of them (especially ones who are new to litigation) believe that they want a “bulldog” – a lawyer with a lot of bark and bite.

That’s not me.  Further, when client’s come in with that perspective, my warning light goes off about whether I want them as a client or not.  Let me explain.

Bulldog lawyers are a bad idea for all sorts of reasons:

1. Bark and bite doesn’t provide any benefit.  Unless the attorney on the other side is completely inexperienced and wimpy, bark and bite are just annoyances.  They make the whole, already unpleasant, process of settling disputes more unpleasant than they otherwise need to be.   They add no value to their client’s case by doing so.

Litigation is about money and risk.  How much money is at issue here, and how much is my client going to end up with (net of legal fees)?  All the stuff about who did this and who did that is interesting, in that it may lead to admissible evidence that helps tell the case story, but all the lawyer sees is money and risk.  Good lawyers don’t really care who is right or wrong, they know the truth is probably in the middle, and they understand that litigation is merely about creating and selling risk. The more risk I create that the other side will lose the case, the more the other side has to pay me to settle (make the case go away), and vice versa.

2. Bark and bite means that the bulldog attorney’s client is looking for show, and expecting something from the legal process that doesn’t exist.

I tell clients at the outset, if you’re waiting for the day that you emotionally crush the opposing party and the judge stands up in his/her seat and gives them a good tongue lashing, save your money, it isn’t going to happen.  I explain: litigation goes on way longer than you think it should, costs way more than you think it should, and the result is rarely all that you wanted and hoped for.  Settlement is good, and the day will likely come when I will tell you that in my opinion settlement on terms you find less than fulfilling is better than a costly trial.  I don’t know what the terms of a “good settlement” are now – but some day I will have an opinion on that issue.

3. Judges don’t like bulldog attorneys because it means that they aren’t being reasonable, don’t have good client control, and therefore, if the matter doesn’t settle it’s probably because of bulldog.  Judges listen to people bicker all day.  They don’t like it.  They will always favor the party that doesn’t engage in the bickering and who acts reasonably to settle the case.  That isn’t to say a good lawyer is never going to throw out incendiary allegations, but s/he only makes such allegations as needed and where completely justified, recognizing and factoring in the negative consequences of doing so.

I explain all this to my clients because I want them to have reasonable expectations.  Attorney-client relationships go badly when clients believe that the attorney isn’t delivering on what they were promised.  Bulldog attorneys who promise to “crush” the opposing side and “win” the case, can only look like failures when the other side isn’t crushed and they face a trial that they may not win.  Typically their case and their relationship with their client fall apart at critical times – and that is just more good news for the other side.

I understand why some clients want bulldogs.  They watch TV and movies that portray litigation as much more dramatic and sexier than is the reality.  They may have had experience with weak and inexperienced attorneys who in fact allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by stronger, more experienced, opposing counsel, and as a result are fearful about engaging another attorney who may have weaknesses.  People looking for representation in litigation should look for strong attorneys (experienced and knowledgeable) but not bulldogs.

Bulldog attorneys are rarely strong lawyers, just lawyers who need the work so that they can to pay their bills. Because they need to land the case, they tell clients what the client wants to hear (“I’m going to crush the other side” etc.), when they should be helping them understand the realities of what they are getting into.

In the end, I almost always enjoy my clients.  That’s because at this stage of my career I have good client control, and that is true because I try to be realistic and honest with them from the get go.  And I am fortunate to be busy.  If a client thinks they need a “bulldog,” they can keep looking.  If I think their expectations are unreasonable, I can say “no thanks.”