We are lawyers, not magicians

Some clients think that telling their lawyer to do something is the same as it being done

Sometimes, this is mere bullying. Perhaps the client has watched too many Hollywood films, and thinks shouting at subordinates is the way to motivate them – “I want [this impossible thing] done by close of business or you are fired!” In those cases, all I can say is, “Good riddance!”

Other times, the “Just do it” attitude is due to a genuine lack of understanding of what is involved and what options are possible. The remedy for that is education – if a client does not understand what is involved, you need to tell them, so the remedy is in your own hands

Occasionally, the “Just do it” attitude is the result of a touching but misplaced faith in the lawyer’s ability to change facts: the debtor who wants the lawyer to get him out of his existing obligation to pay a debt, as a simple example.

A more complex, classic example is the neighbour dispute, where the neighbours have been warring for years, usually over trivialities, and one side or the other – pushed beyond endurance – does something silly like erecting a fence on their neighbour’s land. This gives the now-aggrieved party a stick to beat their neighbour with and, boy! are they going to use it. Off they trot to their lawyer, who rubs his or her hands, and sends a stiff letter to the fence owner: “Get orff my (client’s) land!”

The fence owner then takes legal advice, and perhaps gets a surveyor to check – as far as possible – where the boundary in fact is. Discovering that they are, indeed, in the wrong, they look to their lawyer to magic a way out of the situation.

In those circumstances, the best the lawyer can do is set out the available options; sometimes the best option is to concede the point and re-locate the fence. The client feels defeated and dissatisfied, but lawyers cannot change facts (only present them in the best way for their clients …)

We do our best, but sometimes miracles and magic are just beyond us


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