I got a NASTYGRAM from a client the other day.

It started slowly. Over the weekend, I received an email on my phone with an attachment saying simply, “Please see attached.” I had a bad feeling about the email even though I couldn’t read the attachment from my now-ironically antiquated smart phone. So I waited until I got to the office Monday morning.

I opened the attachment and there it was, in 18 point font. My client told me everything that I did wrong. How I did not represent the client’s interests properly. How I screwed up the client’s life forever. The letter was riddled with hyperbole and grammatical errors.

My first reaction was one of bemusement. I had actually obtained a phenomenal result for this client, who had gotten into hot water and needed legal assistance to get bailed out. I got the client out of the problem, and charged perhaps 10 of the actual 12 hours it took to do so. The client could have had WAY worse problems without my help. Anyone could see that the result in the matter was actually a victory for this client. The client simply did not want to pay the bill.

But my next reaction was one of pain and self-blame. I do care about my clients, deeply. I don’t want them to be upset with my services. This hurt.

In the letter, the client had proposed paying for about two of the six or seven hours remaining on the bill. Although I figured I would go along with it, I decided to think about it for a few days.

In talking with others, I realized that getting a NASTYGRAM is incredibly common. A good friend of mine said, when I told her: “Look girlfriend, let us be clear that I……….. ME…….I in CAPS……am the reason lawyers have a bad name. YOU cannot home in on my designation……….I’ve worked really hard for that glory and I ain’t sharin’.” And then she proceeded to tell me that this insult was what a client had told her last week when she told her client that she could not provide a payment check because she had not received it yet.

Of course, I have received NASTYGRAMS before—thankfully infrequent—but this one hurt more, perhaps because I felt like it was especially undeserved.

I realized that it was still bothering me when I found myself thinking about it days later, early morning on the weekend away from the office. Then I realized that it was not the NASTYGRAM that was the problem, it was me. I was allowing this client into my brain and into my home and allowing this client to be an excuse for my suffering. So the first thing I did was to tell this fake client-in-my-head to eff off.

After all, the issue was the client’s, not mine. This was a client’s problem, not mine. I had done an outstanding job. The client was just one of those people who does not value legal work.

But the next step was to take a look around me and realize where I was. I was sitting upstairs in my drafty old farmhouse, looking at the early morning sunshine on the Topa Topa mountains. The orange trees and avocado trees looked spectacular on an especially clear fall day and I could see from Fillmore to Santa Paula. Then I looked around my comfortably mismatched room. My most vociferous ranch cat was asleep on my fuzzy blanket in my room, apparently oblivious to the NASTYGRAM I had received. I could hear my children downstairs rotting their brains watching Cartoon Network. All actually was well and beautiful in my world.

So I started there. Noticing the good that was around me in the room I was in. Next, I thought of all of the good things I had received from clients this year. Indeed, nine out of ten clients had given me hugs, cookies, flowers, compliments, referrals, or simply paid the bill without complaint. I had a lot to be thankful for and focusing on the one negative client did me no good.

And then I thought about what to do in the future. No matter how good you are at client communication, you can always be better at explaining why your services have value and how you are helping the client. Although in this matter I had done this in writing several times, there are always opportunities for more and better communication.

Have I homed in on my friend’s designation of being The Reason why lawyers have bad names?

No. But she is not that reason either. For more information call (805) 650-7599.


Leslie McAdam is a partner at Ferguson Case Orr Paterson in Ventura. Her practice focuses on employment litigation and counseling, business litigation, real estate and land use. 

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