Today, I got a small case settled. It wasn’t a big injury nor a big deal, and a very small amount of money is changing hands. I’m not getting a fee, and the bulk of the money is going to resolve the clients’ medical bills. My clients are simple people, without much education, and they are trying hard to get by in a tough world. But when I told them that their case was resolved and their medical bills would be paid and there would be a little bit of money left over for them, they were so grateful. It was astonishing to me. How could such a small case cause so much gratitude?
Then I remembered what I preach to younger lawyers and law clerks — every case is big to the people involved. This was the biggest case that these people will ever be involved in, Gods willing, and it makes a difference to them. They put their trust in me and when I brought them back something, it validated that trust. They think I fulfilled my promise to them.
Even if I think it was a small-stakes case, perhaps I’ve spent so much time thinking about my own economic needs, the pressures on me to settle cases and bring home big fees, and high-brow legal theories to try and wrestle with opposing parties that I’d kind of lost sight of a few basic facts. For a lot of hard-working people, one thousand dollars is a lot of money that will make a real impact on their lives. For a lot of my clients, the legal system is a mysterious, alien world full of powerful people in suits throwing around language they don’t understand. When their advocate in that world tells them they’re getting something out of the system, their faith in that system is renewed. And that renews my faith in the system, too.
So yes, it’s a small settlement, I believe it’s the smallest settlement that I’ve been a part of for eight years. But I’m as happy with it as I would be if it were ten or fifty times as much, all because my client really appreciated what I did. I can, and frequently do, beat my head against the wall for million-dollar claims. But when a client is falling all over herself to express her pleasure at what may be a thousand-dollar net return for her, it forcefully reminds me that the legal system is about people, about resolving disputes, and making my clients’ lives better.
My clients think they won today — so that means that they did win today. That, in turn, means that I won today. And that’s why I do what I do for a living.