About five years ago, I started sending my misdemeanor clients a sequence of “life coach” emails that weren’t related to their cases. Each client would receive the first email a week after hiring me, then an email every 10 days or so (currently there are 15 total). The emails offered general life strategies as a way of dealing with the stress of being arrested. I recently received this email in response:
You represented me in 2017 for a DWI case, and as with most in this situation, it was probably the lowest point in my life. Well, things are definitely better now! I wanted to let you know that I was just accepted for spring admission in the Master’s of Legal Studies. I credit your help not only in making my legal situation better, but also the weekly emails you sent to help make better life decisions, self-care tips, and the reassurances that everything will be OK. Those emails really put me on this journey to go back to school and get out of that life that resulted in a DWI.
Before I started the email program, I got some pushback from my staff, who thought that I was crossing a boundary and that our clients would consider the emails inappropriate. While I knew this was certainly a possibility, luckily the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, many of my clients ignore the emails; there is nothing I can do about that. But many of them respond with enthusiasm—which prompts a short parable that I’m sure we’re all familiar with:
One day, an old man walked along the beach with thousands of stranded starfish in the sand. A young boy was picking up the starfish and putting them back in the water. The old man said, “There are too many, and only one of you. What difference can you make?” The young boy put another starfish in the water and said, “I made a difference to that one!”
Of course, my clients didn’t hire me to be a life coach. They did, however, hire me to get the best result on their case. And as any experienced criminal defense attorney knows, clients who accomplish ambitious goals while the case is pending (and can provide documents that prove it) will usually get a better result on their case.
It is powerful mitigation to show a prosecutor that a defendant has received a promotion, been accepted into college, started seeing a therapist, or completed a marathon. These types of accomplishments often “loosen up” a prosecutor during negotiations, especially if you can convince them that the life improvements were a direct response to the arrest. Occasionally, these documented accomplishments will result in some form of dismissal; other times, just a reduction in the terms of the punishment. But even if the prosecutor is unimpressed, clients who have made significant life improvements are often more accepting of the consequences and more successful during their probation because they’re in a better mental state. Either way, it’s a win/win situation.
The emails that I send include a combination of inspirational advice, practical health suggestions, offers to purchase audiobooks, and questionnaires about their goals. Each email includes links to articles I think are helpful, podcasts, or videos about the topic, and begins with: “This email is part of a series of practical advice on how to deal with the stress of being arrested. It is not specifically related to your case.” This is the sequence I currently use:
- Introductory Message: The arrest is an opportunity to accomplish new goals.
- Questions: What goals are they working toward? What are the next (small) steps? Link to online questionnaire
- Introduction: Mind Maps (a graphic way to organize thoughts)
- Offer: To buy them the audiobook Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington. I use audiobooksnow.com (so they don’t have to use a credit card to open an account).
- Advice: Start exercising—running, swimming, etc.—and a request that they provide a photo of themselves doing the new activity
- Discussion: Non-alcoholic beers and wine are better than you think! Try them.
- Offer: To buy them Recovery (audiobook) by Russell Brand. This is an amazing book that will change people’s lives.
- Progress Report Follow-up: Link to online questionnaire
- Advice: Discover new online financial resources (budgeting software)
- Advice: Declutter and organize their home. Discuss The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
- Discussion: Getting audiobooks for free from the library
- Introduction: Massive online open courses, free online classes
- Discussion: Local meetings for new interests on meetup.com
- Discussion: The Value of Sleep
- Suggestion: The power and importance of forgiveness. Link to podcast by Tony Robbins.
Setting up the email sequence can be easily done with any email automation software (Mailchimp, Constant Contact, etc.). There are dozens of options and many are free. I use Contactually.com.
One of the principles of my approach is that people’s likelihood to follow advice is often based on when they receive the advice. It is possible that the trauma of the arrest, combined with relevant advice from their attorney, plus the possibility that following the advice could help their case, will finally get them to make a significant life improvement/change.
There is a chart that I use to share this concept with clients, and if possible, their families. I first establish the “Life/ Happiness/ Success” line, which shows the moderate ups and downs of everyday life. Then comes the precipitous drop caused by an arrest, which establishes the “awfulness” of the ordeal.
First, I draw a line that shows the inadequate degree of recovery that is expected by “pessimistic” clients. In other words, pessimistic clients expect the arrest and potential conviction to guarantee that their life will be worse in the future and stay that way in perpetuity. Next, I draw a line that shows what “optimistic” clients think: They can recover and get back to normal. This is where most of my clients think I will conclude my presentation.
However, I continue by drawing a line that goes much higher than the original “Life/Happiness/Success” line—and I emphasize that this is our shared goal—indicating a drastic improvement over their original (pre-arrest) status. The questions for the client then become: What needs to be improved while the case is pending to reach this new level? And how are we going to document the improvements so that I can show them to the prosecutor?
I understand that not every attorney has the time (or inclination) to send life-coach-type advice to their clients, but at the minimum, all attorneys should make sure that their clients know this important fact: A client’s life accomplishments while the case is pending, if documented, can improve the chances of getting a better result on the case. This message can be communicated in the initial consultation, a subsequent meeting, or described in a paragraph of the legal services agreement. And who knows? Some of your clients will surprise you with what they accomplish.
There are three important steps toward encouraging your clients to achieve such accomplishments while the case is pending:
The first step is making sure that each client knows that documented life improvements can affect the outcome of a misdemeanor case. There are no guarantees, but it is likely that at least some of the punishment can be reduced if we can prove to the prosecutor that the accused made some real progress toward an ambitious goal.
The second step is to encourage (or help) the client identify an ambitious goal. It should impress the prosecutor while also helping the client: getting a GED, applying to college, finding a new job, improving their living situation, starting a business, etc. This strategy is effective because, in general, prosecutors will agree that people working toward an ambitious goal are less likely to be reckless in the future.
The third step is to describe how easy it is to document the progress that is made. Many clients don’t realize that screenshots, photos taken on their phone, receipts, and emails are often sufficient to convince a prosecutor that the progress is legitimate. In other words, the documents don’t have to be original, formal, or notarized in most cases.
An arrest brings a unique type of pressure. In many cases, our clients have never run up against a system as inflexible as the American justice system. And while some of our clients just retreat into anger and cynicism (refusing to cooperate), some accept the reality of their predicament and follow our advice. When we encourage them to reach for a goal that both improves the outcome of their case and helps them lead a more successful and happier life, everybody wins.