Continuing a series of tips on effective advocacy for military attorneys.
4. Ask new clients four important questions.
Through the years, four questions have proved useful with new clients.
1. Tell me more…. Clients seldom approach an attorney with an unemotional issue of “pure law.” Military members typically are angry, sad, or apprehensive about legal problems. Their frustration can cut deep if it involves disillusionment with the military establishment: They took an oath and were willing to give their lives to the Nation…doesn’t the military owe them loyalty in return? When “their” military fails them, the effect can be shattering. Given the human emotions involved, few clients can state their issues cleanly. So to begin with, the prudent attorney will see through the emotion and tease out more basic details.
One possible approach: Urge them to give you the “straight news” rather than the “editorial page.”
Sometimes, the client has built up a solid resentment; the story keeps getting more dramatic in the retelling. The client becomes a pure-hearted soul, fighting diabolical forces. And the “facts” come out badly skewed. We recall one recent case where the client had the facts so one-sided — “the captain was twice as guilty as me, but only I got punished” — that the story was no longer credible.
Certainly, clients are entitled to the courtesy of a good-natured hearing. But what about clients who take forever to get their story out? Yes, you want more facts…but not all the drama. One possible technique to stay on track is to ask: “If you had two minutes with the Commander-in-Chief, how would you state your problem?” Another way to cut through the drama is to use a questionnaire — give them about a half page of space to succinctly state their issue.
2. What do you want? Often, new clients are so emotionally involved that they have not considered the endgame. We recently had a client at loggerheads with his command. Senior leadership appeared to be open to redress, supporting the elimination of most negative comments from his record. However, the problem went deeper – he wanted a military-related job in retirement, and minor reprimands or negative comments in efficiency reports could block his goal. The crux was: Precisely what did he want done? Here, it was not simply a question of a “bad OER.’ for a fine man ready to retire. Rather, he needed an impeccably clean record to win his military-related retirement job. The question of precisely what he wanted was outcome-determinative.
3. ‘What do THEY say?’ This can be a useful question, revealing surprising details. You simply ask: “What does the other side say about the issue?”
4. “So what?” This is a tough question. It probably should be stated gently. Clients often will stress an irrelevant side issue that contributes little to a positive resolution . We’re mindful of a client who — several years ago — honorably went to bat on an issue of equal treatment for minorities. He was justifiably proud of his stand. However, that masked his real issue. The question was whether he deserved a medical retirement That was a factual determination for the medics. Yes, there might be bad faith and racism — it certainly could be noted. But the bottom line was not racism. Rather, did he have sufficient service-related medical conditions triggering a 30% disability and thus a military pension for life..
Four questions — they can be effective tools to leave no stone unturned and better serve the client.