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How to Tell Clients They're Being Stupid

By William Vogeler, Esq. on September 18, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It may come as no surprise that most Americans are ignorant about the law.

According to the University of Pennsylvania, most Americans don't have a clue about the Constitution. Barley one-third can remember the First Amendment right; only one in three can name a branch of government; and even fewer know all three branches.

So how do you deal with clients who are ignorant about the law? Or worse, how do you tell them they are being stupid?

Felony Stupid

In criminal law practice, it's an inside joke that both prosecutors and defense attorneys know about defendants. Attorneys may not say it, but they're thinking it -- even before they meet the accused.

If you need it in writing, it's in the police reports. Seriously, what were they thinking? Not much, apparently.

So it's practically the criminal defense attorney's duty to explain to clients in clear terms -- especially when they're kids or repeat offenders -- that they screwed up. Tell them that unless they get smart, they are going to be like all the other losers in jail.

It's better coming from you than from a cop or someone else who has the power to take their liberty or their life. You are doing your client a favor because you may help spare them a miserable future, and they should thank you for the tongue-lashing.

Civil Ignorance

It's another thing when it comes to "educating" a civil client. The dynamic is quite different when your client is not in custody and has other attorneys to choose from.

It depends, or course, on the nature of the relationship and the personalities involved. Some attorney-client relationships are as friendly as drinking buddies, but doing legal business over drinks is not really a good idea.

The professorial approach, like Professor Illya Somin's report on ignorant Americans, works. Writing about the study for the Washington Post, he said the results were no surprise.

"They are largely consistent with previous data going back several decades, showing widespread ignorance on a wide range of legal and political matters, including the Constitution," he wrote.

Degrees or certificates on your office wall can help set the stage for the professorial approach with ignorant clients. The challenge will be convincing them that you know more than they do.

If that doesn't work, maybe they need the "felony stupid" talk. Sometimes, there's a fine line between civil and criminal liability.

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