When All Eyes are On Them

Every now and then, a lawyer will get a call from someone in desperate need of help. They’re being stalked, spied upon, wiretapped and harassed by the government. They don’t know why, there’s no reason for it, but the fact remains that every time they turn around, they catch a glimpse of agents tailing them. Watching them from a window. A familiar face in a passing car. Words overheard on the subway that the victim herself just said on the phone the other day. They’ve gone to the police repeatedly, only to be ignored or rebuffed. They’ve sent countless letters to their elected representatives, only to get polite empty letters in reply.┬áIt’s clearly a conspiracy, and they are suffering from it.

And indeed, they are suffering. It’s making their lives miserable. They’re desperate for help. Everyone they turn to seems to be in on the conspiracy. They’ve amassed heavy files over the years, documenting their failed attempts to make it all just go away (which they sometimes FedEx unsolicited to various lawyers, trying to find someone, anyone, who can help).

This is rarely something that lawyers can help with.

The human brain is marvelous in lots of ways. One thing it’s awesome at is spotting patterns. Pattern recognition helps you navigate through a complex world and make sense of events. Spotting patterns helps you evade predators, figure out social situations, drive in traffic, and analyze complex scientific data. It’s something a small child can do that the best computers are still a long way from doing. But not all patterns are meaningful. Any set of random events will throw out something that looks like a pattern, every now and then. So another awesome thing the brain does is filter out the meaningless patterns, so you only have to take notice of the important ones.

But in some people, the part of the brain that filters out the meaningless from the meaningful is broken. Apparent patterns are thrust upon their consciousness with the same force as real patterns requiring action. It can manifest itself as irrational jealousy that destroys relationships, or as a certainty that in every job they’ve had people were out to get them, or as a belief that the CIA shoved a microchip up their butt so they’re going to blow up a federal office building or shoot up the White House. In olden times, they saw ghosts or had religious experiences or accused someone of witchcraft.

This is a psychological disorder, not a legal disorder. Lawyers should be very careful about taking on such clients.

Yes, their money is as good as anyone else’s, and they’re just as entitled to spend it as they wish. But lawyers have an ethical duty not to take advantage. Just because someone’s willing to pay you to help them make the persecution go away, that doesn’t mean it’s right to take their money.

You are not going to be able to make the persecution go away. Even if you had godlike political influence, nobody’s doing anything, so you can’t make them stop it. So taking money in order to “try” or to “help” is taking money for services that are impossible for you to perform. It’s simply unethical, and you shouldn’t do it. They need an MD, not a JD.

(The only exception we can think of is when the client knows they have this problem, they’re already being treated for it, and they need your help separating the important stuff from the unimportant. Maybe they’re having you assess records or documents to help them sort out what they do and do not need to pay attention to. In that case, you’re acting as an advisor in your proper role — but even then, you’d better be damn careful.)

So what do you do when these clients call? A simple “I’m sorry, but that’s out of my practice area” usually suffices. But however you deal with it, don’t take advantage.

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