Are You A Potted Plant?


Brendan Sullivan famously explained his role as an attorney in the Iran-Contra hearings by declaring that he was “not a potted plant“, but the witness’ attorney.  “I’m the lawyer.  That’s my job.”

Sullivan was defending his repeated objections to questions asked of his client:  that was his job.  I, similarly, see my job as a bankruptcy attorney as pushing my clients to reexamine financial choices they propose to make.  If I am helping to dig them out of a financial hole, my role should include challenging  behaviors likely to return them to a new hole of similar dimensions.

So I was surprised at the number of bankruptcy lawyers in a list serve exchange who thought playing devil’s advocate was outside their role.  They were lawyers and no more, they contended.  They were there to give the clients what the clients thought they wanted.

What a waste of a teachable moment, was my thought.  I would posit that, as bankruptcy lawyers,  we may be the only people to whom our clients disclose the entirety of the story about their finances. (Sometimes, we have to work real hard to get the entire story.)  We encounter them at a moment of change, with the benefit of having thought through similar problems several times a day for an extended period for other clients.  Why is it that we, as lawyers, should withhold the distillation of that experience from clients?

Certainly, we aren’t trained as investment advisors.  I wouldn’t think to suggest to a client how to invest the money that will be freed up by the bankruptcy discharge.  But I feel it absolutely within my role to inquire what provisions the client has made to date for retirement; to look down the road with respect to the the underwater house they propose to keep; or to explore whether they really want to reaffirm the gas guzzling SUV.

In the end, the choices belong to the client.  But enough clients have rethought their first impulses after we’ve talked about it that I believe I’m comfortably within my professional boundaries to challenge choices that seem perverse.  In the ABI Journal, Scott Bovitz encapsulated the job of the lawyer:  “A lawyer helps the client identify options and make the best choices under difficult circumstances.”

What do you think?

Image Creative Commons, courtesy of bpump.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more with you Cathy.  I believe that we aren’t just lawyers or attorneys.  We are also counselors.  Our clients pay us for a special expertise regarding financial decision-making.  We spend most of our days examining the worst decisions made by our clients, and how we can fix them.  I feel it is also our role to help clients avoid similar bad choices in the future.  In fact, I go so far as to tell my clients that I want to help them to never need my bankruptcy services again.  In return I expect them to think of me when an opportunity to refer a friend or family member arises.  Although I’m not Catholic, the Jesuit law school I went to trained me to treat my client as a whole person and not a subset of problems to solve.  Clients appreciate it, and I really feel like I make a difference in their lives.