Archive for the ‘Legal Profession’ Category

How to be a good lawyer: Keith Lee’s “The Marble and the Sculptor”

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

The Marble and the Sculptor

Keith Lee

American Bar Association, November 2013, 180 pages, $24.95

 

I don’t like self-help books. They usually contain a single insight, repeated fifteen different ways, and padded out with anecdotes to fill a couple hundred pages. What might have made an excellent magazine article or blog post becomes a dreary monotone of “omg-check-this-out-guys!” hype.

I don’t like books on the practice of law. When they aren’t just plain foolish, written by marketing types who don’t get the concept of a learned profession, they’re banal. And I’m leery of anything written specifically for the “you are special” audience. They tend to skimp on hard truths and practical wisdom.

Keith Lee has written a self-help book for the “you are special” audience, on the practice of law. And I love it.

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Lee’s book is a primer for those just starting out in the profession. And it’s full of sound advice.

Taking his title from a quote by Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel — “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor” — Lee wastes no time in making his point that becoming a good lawyer takes daily diligence, hard work, and a certain amount of self-sacrifice. Being a lawyer isn’t some job you go to, so you can live your real life after hours and on the weekends. Being a lawyer is your life. A certain amount of transformation is going to be necessary.

Fortunately, Lee has sound guidance on just what kind of transformation is necessary. Showing wisdom beyond his years, he lays out precisely the skills, habits and ways of thinking that lawyers need to have.

There is little fluff here. The chapters are short and sweet. He doesn’t repeat himself, but makes his point and moves on. He actually has a lot to say, and he seems impatient to get on to the next bit. This is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t have everything. His focus on concision means less introspection and analysis. He focuses more on the “what” than the “why,” so sometimes his assertions seem a bit conclusory, and at times I felt like I was left hanging. (In one example, for instance, he warns that the commoditization of legal services can become “overwhelming and dangerous” and then moves on, without describing those dangers. It wouldn’t hurt to include a paragraph or two explaining something like high volume efficiencies may work for routine, nonvarying services, but the second someone has a unique situation requiring creativity or thought, you’re setting yourself up for disaster — either you can’t spend the time and resources to give that client the individualized services he requires, or you do but at the expense of your other clients. Maybe in the next edition.)

But this is more than made up for by the good, sound advice that fills page after page of the book. Frankly, there are tons of books out there exploring all the reasoning behind each of his nuggets of wisdom. If you want deeper analysis, you can find it. But if you want a simple, straightforward “what do I need to know? what do I need to do?” then you can’t beat this book right here.

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As I said, the book’s chapters are short and sweet. Rarely more than a couple of pages each. They are organized into four neat sections: Law School, Fundamental Skills, Clients & Client Service, and Professional Development.

The section on law school leads off with a chapter provocatively titled “Do Not Go to Law School.” But don’t let that fool you. Lee is someone who clearly loves the law, and for all the right reasons. He wants you to go to law school, just not for the wrong reasons. The other chapters in that section are full of advice, not so much for doing well in school, but for taking advantage of those years to prepare for a rewarding career afterwards. A major theme in this section is that you probably aren’t as awesome as you think you are, because you’re too ignorant to even realize what you don’t know… so put in the effort.

The section on fundamental skills is meant to set out the rudiments of legal practice, the basic skills every lawyer must have just to do the job (and which must continue to be practiced and improved throughout one’s career). Here, Lee focuses on writing well, speaking well, and dressing well. Although I agree with all three, I probably would have chosen a more comprehensive set of necessary rudiments — Knowledge of the law itself in one’s field, the ability to do thorough research and meaningful analysis, clarity of thought, and the ability to communicate and persuade in writing and orally. These skills underlie everything lawyers do, from drafting a will to negotiating a deal to arguing in court.  I’d be the last to argue that dressing well is not important, but it is not a fundamental skill required for the practice of law. Oddly enough, I’d have preferred this section to be less detailed and more conclusory — the bits on rhetorical devices and the such are necessarily incomplete given the nature of the book, and a more simple “here’s what you need to learn, now go learn this stuff somewhere else” might have sufficed.

The section on clients and client service should be required reading for every new lawyer before being sworn in. The first chapter says it all: “The Privilege of Being a Servant.” We are here to serve our clients, first and foremost. If anything is sacred in this world, it is our duty to those who have put their lives and livelihoods in our hands. And we are honored to be given that duty. But Lee doesn’t just mouth this lofty ideal; he gets into the practicality of actually carrying it out. How the heck do you serve that client? For that matter, how do you get that client in the first place? He does so without trivializing the relationship, or turning it into a salesman’s mantra of leads and conversions. Recognizing the wisdom of others, Lee makes sure to share insights gleaned from others in the profession. (As he says elsewhere, watch others to see what works, and make it yours. He does a fine job of it here.)

The final section actually takes up the entire second half of the book, and shifts away from clients and the profession to talk about you. Your own personal fulfillment. How to succeed as a lawyer. But it’s anything but touchy-feely. The advice here is really about how to be good at what you do. What disciplines, habits, and choices are going to make you awesome — and by extension, make your life as a lawyer awesome? The chapter titles are brilliant (“To Sharpen is to Destroy,” “Personal Branding is Stupid,” “5 Basic Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Job,” etc.) and just reading the table of contents feels inspiring. The thoughts he shares follow through on that promise. Ending with “There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be a Lawyer” and the most essential truth of all “Chance Favors the Prepared,” the reader has to feel ready to run out there and be that great lawyer right away.

So get the book. Read it. Take those nuggets of wisdom and make them your own. Then go out there and be that great lawyer.

Q&A Dump

Friday, September 6th, 2013

I’m on the road today, but I wanted to post something. So I’m going to cheat and cut-and-paste some recent Q&A posts from my Tumblr. If you’re looking for a longer read, go check out my comic, which just completed a long section involving how the Fourth Amendment plays out during different kinds of car stops.

From today:

I don’t know all the facts, of course, and I’m not a Florida lawyer, but from what I’ve read it seems to me like the defense doesn’t have a winning argument here. It’s not unethical to make a losing argument, and lawyers often feel obligated to make every conceivable argument rather than lose an issue for appeal, or in the hope that something sticks — but it might be better to preserve your credibility with the court by choosing those arguments that at least have a teeny bit of merit.

“Stand your ground” laws say that, if you’re lawfully where you are, and someone is then and there about to kill or severely injure you, then even if you could have gotten away safely you’re allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself.

The “Bush Doctrine” is an application in international law of a basic principle of self-defense: you don’t have to wait for the other guy to hit you first before you defend yourself from the coming blow.

From what I understand of the Woodward case, he felt intimidated by these people, but was not in any immediate danger. Nobody was coming at him. Nobody was presently any threat to him.

Instead, he snuck up on a group of people at a barbecue, crawling on his belly to avoid detection. Then he fired a mess of rounds at them, hitting three and killing two. I don’t know what kind of weapon he had, but if the reported numbers of rounds are accurate, then he must have stopped to reload a few times.

This was not self-defense, because he was not in any actual danger at the time. At best, he was defending against some imagined possible future attack that might never have come. I get that he felt terribly harassed, but that’s not the same thing as an actual imminent attack. A hypothetical future attack is not an imminent one.

It was not stand your ground, because first of all he probably wasn’t lawfully there but was trespassing with intent to commit murder; and second of all because he wasn’t reacting to an attack.

The “Bush Doctrine” is just silly to cite, when there are plenty of self-defense cases to cite involving striking the first blow. But even there, the whole point is you’re about to get hit, and you’re defending yourself by making sure that blow doesn’t land on you.

From what I read, it looks like nothing less than cold-blooded premeditated murder, perhaps under great stress from a history of harassment, but in no way justified by it. Very similar to the “battered wife” scenario in my comic, actually.

—-

Just to make this long answer even longer, here are the playground rules I’ve drilled into my kids since they started school:

1. No matter how angry you get at someone, you’re not allowed to hit them.

2. If someone else is about to hurt you for real, first try to get away.

3. If you can’t get away, try to get a grownup to help you.

4. If you can’t get help, then I want you to hit first, I want you to hit hard, and you’re not allowed to stop hitting them until they can’t hit you any more. Let’s practice some moves.

I guess Woodward’s daddy never taught him that.

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From a couple of days ago:

This started out as an offshoot of my law blog, which has a similar disclaimer. It’s pretty standard for lawyers to state that their legal information isn’t legal advice, and just because you read it that doesn’t make you a client.

We’re all stating the obvious when we do that. (And no amount of disclaimer would help if a lawyer actually did give legal advice.) I imagine every lawyer cringes a bit as he types one out. Nobody in their right mind needs to have this explained.

But not everyone is in their right mind, sadly. You hear stories about how every now and then someone didn’t quite get the concept, which can turn into an unpleasant situation. So lawyers hope their disclaimers deter some of those people — and it’s nice to have something in black and white to point out to them.

It hasn’t happened to me, though. Not yet, anyway.

image

Or you could just… you know… try not to get arrested in the first place.

Read them, and not get arrested. Yeah. That might be better.

(Thanks, tho!)

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And from a couple days before that:

Yeah… well… not quite.

18 USC 241 & 242 aren’t really about unlawful search and seizure or other stuff dealt with by the exclusionary rule. They’re about police seriously abusing their power. 241 is about conspiring to injure or threaten or intimidate someone, to hinder their civil rights or to retaliate against exercising their rights. 242 is about abusing their power to actually deprive someone of their civil rights.

And the abuse of power has to be really severe. We’re talking about intentionally making up false evidence, intentional false arrests, sexual assaults, and severely excessive force.

What’s being deterred isn’t merely violating the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, but actual criminal conduct. This goes beyond even a civil rights lawsuit. These are not charges that you could bring yourself. They’d have to be filed by a prosecutor.

For a non-federal example of how states deal with it, here’s a story about a Mississippi sheriff who just got indicted the other day for similar conduct.

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Thanks!

That’s really my purpose here — to dispel all the crazy myths and misinformation that are so prevalent out there, and present the straight facts in a format that’s easy for any high school student or adult to understand.

Not that I want anyone to think they have to accept how things really are. Maybe we ought to do some things differently. I like to think I’m helping people at least make informed arguments one way or the other (and I’ll be honest: I get a real thrill whenever I see people link to the comic in their online debates).

And I love getting messages like this. Totally makes my day. Thanks again!

This is FANTASTIC!

(Sounds like your kid has a great parent, by the way.)

Too Many Lawyers?

Monday, August 19th, 2013

Keith Lee posted an interesting chart on his blog today, comparing how fast the number of lawyers is growing to how fast the general population is growing. The U.S. population has grown at a slow and steady pace since 1945. The lawyer population, however, has grown at a much faster rate since the 70s.

People have been complaining about “too many lawyers” since at least the 70s, if not earlier. This data would seem to explain some of that feeling, as the lawyer population has grown faster than the general population.

But how accurate is that complaint? Are there too many lawyers?

Not too long ago, you could say “no” and back yourself up with a convincing supply-and-demand argument. The market demanded more legal services, so more lawyers were coming out of school to fill that demand. If there wasn’t demand for a lawyer’s services, he’d soon find something else to do.

It’s not as if lawyers create their own work, after all — personal injury lawyers don’t go around causing traffic accidents; transactional lawyers don’t draft contracts because they feel like it; criminal defense lawyers don’t make people go out and commit crimes. It’s the clients who want to sue each other, who have deals that need to be structured, who get in trouble and need help.

So if more and more lawyers were out there, it wasn’t the legal profession’s fault. It was because the rest of you were suing each other more often. It was because life, business and government were getting more complex, and you needed more help in navigating your affairs. It was your fault, not ours. Simple supply and demand.

There weren’t too many lawyers. There were exactly as many lawyers as you, the clients, wanted there to be.

Actually, the growth in lawsuits and wills and ordinary lawyering wasn’t really ballooning. Ordinary lawyering was keeping pace with the population, for the most part. What was really growing, starting around 1970, was the demand for corporate transactional work. That’s what created the big firms, what drove the big fees.

But this new corporate demand wasn’t a permanent shift in the demand curve. It was a bubble. Actually, it was a series of bubbles — the M&A bubble of the 70s, the real estate bubble of the 80s, the dot-com bubble of the 90s, another real estate bubble in the 00s — Wall Street percolated with all kinds of demand for more corporate work. Each bubble burst, as they tend to do. But so long as Wall Street kept percolating, there were always new bubbles coming along. Overall, it was constant. And it drove higher and higher fees, higher and higher salaries, secure and steady work. And that drove more and more people to go into the law, looking to get some of that steady work and high pay. (Which is the exact wrong reason to go into the law, but that’s what happened.)

But then, about six years ago, it stopped. The demand for the high-pay big-firm corporate work dropped significantly. The profession tried to ride it out, keeping all those high-pay lawyers around for when the work came back. But it didn’t. And a year later they realized they couldn’t keep paying all those high salaries without the same level of fees coming in. So they started shedding lawyers.

Those were good lawyers, of course. These firms had only hired the best of the best. Which was great if you weren’t a top student from a top school — with those guys competing for the Wall Street-driven jobs, there was more room for you on Main Street. But once those guys started competing for the Main Street work, there was less demand for graduates whose grades or schools weren’t stellar.

And so you saw an awful lot of students who had entered law school expecting an easy job market graduate with no job (but plenty of debt).

If you asked one of those new graduates if there were too many lawyers, you’d probably hear a resounding “YES!”

But that’s because there were more lawyers competing for fewer jobs. The actual number of lawyers working as lawyers was still exactly as many as you, the clients, were demanding.

The job market took that hit in 2008, and it hasn’t really changed much since then. But law school applications — which had been steadily falling up until then — now shot up, rising faster than before for the next couple of years. Presumably well-educated college-graduate adults saw law school as an attractive option, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A lot of these applicants looked on law school as a default — the economy sucked, so this was a great way to ride out the recession and have a good-paying, steady, upper-middle-class career on the other side. They didn’t want to be lawyers for the right reasons, but they wanted to go to law school.

Supply and demand being what they are, if more people wanted to pay good money to go to law school, there were going to be more seats for them to fill. And so the number of law students continued to rise. And so even more fresh graduates came out to face the same job market that had NOT been growing at the same pace.

If you ask any of these new graduates if there were too many lawyers, you’d probably hear a resounding “YES!”

Supply and demand being what they are, of course, people eventually stopped applying to law school in such numbers. They’ve resumed their downward path. In fact, applications are going down faster than ever, and are probably at their lowest point in thirty years. Meanwhile, those who couldn’t find work as lawyers have mostly found something else to do. So this oversupply of fresh graduates is in the process of shaking itself out.

But even with this momentary oversupply of fresh graduates, the number of lawyers actually working is still going to be however many you, the clients, demand. The answer to the question “are there too many lawyers” is still “no.”

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Of course, what people are really complaining about when they say “too many lawyers” is that there are too many bad lawyers. Nobody complains about the good ones. But that’s a subject for another time.

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 Since I got off on this from looking at some graphs, I thought I’d make some of my own. Look at these and ask yourself if there really are too many lawyers:

Understanding the law

Friday, March 8th, 2013

A lot of the law is extremely formulaic. True, human intelligence is required to spot issues, devise strategies, and (most importantly) persuade decisionmakers. But in its actual application, the law is often little more than a series of IF-THEN decisions. A computer could be programmed to do it. This is just as true of corporate taxation as of advanced constitutional law. A law student could outline those courses with nothing more than a flowchart and do okay on the exam.

Knowing the formula is important. It’s specialized knowledge that you usually have to go to law school to get. But it’s only knowledge. It’s not understanding.

It’s like baking a cake. If you know the recipe, you can go step by step through the process and get a decent cake on the other side. If you don’t know the recipe, you’re likely to wind up with a big mess. But knowing a recipe that works isn’t the same as knowing why it works. It’s not going to help you if your ingredients suddenly change, or something new is added into the mix, or you have to use an oven with a very different temperature. In that case, if you want to make a cake, you’re going to have to understand the chemistry of what’s going on, the effect that the ingredients and how they are combined and the heat and the time have on the final result.

Knowledge is the what. Understanding is the why.

Most students can demonstrate their knowledge on an exam, and they’re lumped together in the curve. It’s the rare students who demonstrate their understanding who get the outlier As, however.

In fact, there are professors out there who will announce to the class that the final exam is going to cover things that never came up in class. Topics that were never discussed. Issues that aren’t in any of the books. The students will have to say, based on their understanding of why the law is the way it is, what the answer in that unfamiliar area ought to be.

These are awesome professors. If you ever get one, cherish the experience. Because you’ve lucked into someone who teaches the why, as well as the what. And you are going to be so much better equipped to deal with the law as it changes.

The law does change. Whatever field you practice in, the law is going to change during your career. If you know where the law is coming from, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where it’s going. And more importantly, whichever way it goes, you’ll get why. You’ll understand it better. You’ll be able to use it better, advise your clients better, persuade a court better.

So how does get this understanding?

What you’re looking for is policy. An underlying philosophy or purpose that explains the statutes and cases. What were the lawmakers and judges trying to do? What was the point of view that drove how they did it?

You’d think this would be easy — just look at the legislative record to see all the arguments for and against, the court opinions spelling out in excruciating detail precisely where they were coming from.

But if you try doing that, you’ll soon learn it’s not easy at all. The stated reasons for statutes, regulations and caselaw are inconsistent as hell. They’re all over the map. And what’s more, people are only human. The reasons we give for our actions are rarely the same as our true, unstated motives. We may not even be fully aware ourselves of the actual policies we’re acting on — most of the time because we haven’t reflected enough to actually know what they are, and so they remain unconscious, subliminal. And our brains are wonderfully adept at justifying after the fact.

So it’s a puzzle. The narrators are not telling you the truth. They’re not lying to you, but they’re not telling you the truth. The trick is to pick out the clues from what they say, from the situations they’re reacting to, from the problems they’re trying to solve, and from (most importantly) what they actually do. It takes a fair amount of insight into one’s fellow human beings to solve this puzzle.

And this is what sets apart the merely adequate law professor from the superstar. The adequate professor makes sure you understand what the various disparate laws happen to be. The superstar gives you an insight that explains them all (or most of them, anyway).

Which way would you prefer to learn them all?

Now, there are lots of ways to explain what’s going on. How do you know which theories are best?

As with any other field of study, the simplest theory that explains the most data is best.

So for example, you might have a ton of cases that seem to be all over the place, if you just take the judges at their word. They seem to be espousing a given principle, but their decisions keep pushing the law in a different direction. That tells you that the real reason isn’t the one they’re saying. Maybe it’s emotion. Maybe it’s a desire for a certain outcome no matter what. Maybe it’s just pandering to a perceived public opinion. Maybe it’s just a backroom deal.

And those surface reasons give you a clue to the unspoken philosophy behind them. In a criminal case where the court is performing some impressive legal gymnastics, it could simply be that the desire to punish this guy is more important than any protections the law might have given him. (That’s the opposite of the rule of law, by the way. A good example of saying one thing but doing another.)

You can also watch as repeated reliance on the spoken, but incorrect, principles leads to bizarre outcomes. The exclusionary rule is a good example, where the courts keep saying it’s about deterring the police from violating your rights, when in reality it does nothing of the sort. The rule is intended not to make the police think twice but instead to ensure that violations of your rights don’t get used against you. And you can see how repeated insistence on its deterrent purpose erodes the rule — because in situation after situation the court recognizes that there is no significant deterrent effect, and so says exclusion wouldn’t matter here.

This kind of thing goes on in almost every field of the law.

The trick to understanding is actually formulaic: 1) Look at the facts and the outcome; 2) Look at the stated justifications; 3) Note any disconnects; 4) Apply your own understanding of human nature, various philosophies, history, culture, etc., determine likely explanations for the disconnects; 5) Select the explanation that explains the most data with the least complexity.

Go on, try it!

Why Are You Here?

Saturday, February 9th, 2013

The other day, the Charleston School of Law was kind enough to invite me to speak to its student body as part of its Professionalism lecture series. My theme was, of course, professionalism in the law. But in the context of why we practice law. If you’re interested, have a look:

 

 

P.S. – If you want to skip the dean’s kind introduction, just go to the 5-minute mark.

Statistical ranking of defense lawyers? Maybe, but not this way.

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

It’s an intriguing notion: that one can objectively assess the relative effectiveness of a given lawyer. With hard data, and sound analysis. In the real world, it’s nigh impossible to tell how good a lawyer really is. You can look on Avvo and see what people here and there may have subjectively thought about him, but that doesn’t tell you whether any other lawyer would have done as well (or been just as dissatisfying). You can ask around and get a sense of what other lawyers generally think of him, but that’s just as subjective. There’s really nothing out there to tell you for sure whether that lawyer gets better-than-average results or not.

So Wake Forest professors Ronald Wright and Ralph Peeples — to their great credit — tried to see if it could be done. In their recent paper, “Criminal Defense Lawyer Moneyball: A Demonstration Project,” they conclude that it can be done. They may even be right about that. But not from the data they gathered, sadly.

[Warning: The internet’s gonna (more…)

Answering Your Most Burning Questions

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Google analytics is a great tool. Among other things, it shows the search engine queries people use to find this blog. Which is a good way of figuring out who its audience is, and what they need to know.

The queries aren’t as entertaining as they are over at Popehat, but then again neither is this blog.

Nor are they all that varied. In fact, just looking at the top 2000 searches so far this month, almost every single one is a variation on a few basic themes. These are the questions people apparently want answered right now. So I’ll address them briefly — very briefly — here.

1. Should I become a lawyer? / Do I have what it takes to be a lawyer?

To answer questions like these, you first have to understand what lawyers do. Once you know that, it should be (more…)

100%

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

The call came, as they always do, at the last minute. “I’ve been charged with a crime, and I have to be in court in two days, and my lawyer isn’t doing anything, and I’m scared.” The caller came in to meet with me in person, as they always do when they’re legitimately scared and not merely irritated or price-shopping.

Most of the time, after hearing them out, we tell such folks that it’s probably not wise to change horses in mid-stream. Much as we’d love to help them, it doesn’t sound like their present lawyer’s doing all that bad by them, and there’s not enough time for us to catch up. But once in a while, the emergency is legit, and it sounds like we might be able to help. The client signs the agreement, forks over the retainer, and we get to work. There isn’t a minute to lose.

(Before they go, however, we sometimes half-jokingly ask why they didn’t just call us first. The answers vary, but it always boils down to money. There’s nothing wrong with that — price is a legitimate concern. And our services aren’t exactly cheap. So it makes sense that we wouldn’t even be considered an option until other things suddenly became much more important. Unfortunately, people often don’t realize it until the last minute, or until it’s too late.)

There isn’t a minute to lose, and we’re going to spend the next couple of days trying to accomplish all the things that should have been done already — gathering evidence, analyzing data, speaking with prosecutors, etc. Usually, of course, the first call is to the original lawyer. Nobody likes to get those calls, but it’s usual enough in the criminal world — clients jump ship all the time for various reasons, it happens to all of us — and the lawyers are usually collegial and gracious about it.

But not this time.

This time, the lawyer was outraged. Couldn’t believe that this was happening. This wasn’t mere shock, as from a new lawyer experiencing it for the first time. It was anger and betrayal. We began to wonder if perhaps we’d mis-read the facts, and maybe this lawyer had invested a lot into this case.

That thought didn’t last long. “Can you shoot me a copy of your files?” What files? The lawyer only had the accusatory instruments. “What’s the prosecutor’s take on the case?” Who knows? The lawyer hadn’t called to ask. A few questions more, and it became obvious that zero work had been done on the case, and the client’s fears were fully justified.

Our silence must have been eloquent. The lawyer started protesting that the client couldn’t expect ass-busting in a case like this.

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Ah. Yes. Of course. No client could expect their lawyer to be busting their ass on a routine little case.

Except that’s absolutely wrong. Clients can — and should — expect their lawyers to be out there busting there asses on every single case.

It doesn’t matter whether the client’s looking at a murder rap or a farcical summons. The lawyer’s job is to give 100% to defend that client. The client paying next to nothing gets the same level of care as the one who’s carrying your practice for the year.

That means putting in time, of course. And if one has a high-volume-lowest-fee business model, there probably isn’t any extra time for that. There’s barely enough time to just show up on the assigned court date and take whatever plea gets offered. Any more work than that would mean one has no time for taking on all the other cases required to pay the bills. So too bad, so sad, but that time is not going to be invested.

And so here’s another client who’d hired a lawyer, thinking the lawyer would protect them and defend them the way lawyers are supposed to. And instead got a lawyer who saw the client as just another routine widget to be processed through the machine. A lawyer who isn’t there to protect and defend, but to grease the wheels of the machine that destroys reputations and lives. And now the client is starting to realize that, and the client is beginning to panic. For damn good reason.

-=-=-=-=-

The lawyer didn’t end the call graciously. But it ended. And then we got to work.

Over the next couple of days we got the alleged victims’ stories from the prosecutor, fleshed out the prosecutor’s assessment of the case, located and interviewed three eyewitnesses, and helped the prosecutor dramatically reassess the case in the client’s favor. From a heinous incarceration case to essentially “go forth and sin no more.”

This is not self-congratulation. It didn’t happen because of any particular skill or ability we have. It took no brilliance whatsoever. This is precisely what would have happened anyway, had the first lawyer done his job right. Any lawyer who had bothered to take the time would probably have gotten the same result. It really was a no-brainer at the end.

No, this is not self-congratulation — this is a complaint. A complaint about lawyers who don’t feel like a particular case deserves 100%. Every case gets it. Every client deserves it. If you don’t have the time, too bad — that is not your client’s problem. Every client gets 100%. Period.

And if you don’t agree, then what the heck are you doing here?

More Reason to Increase Legal Profession’s Barriers to Entry

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

When people complain that “there are too many lawyers,” what they really mean is that there are too many bad ones. There is always demand for good lawyers to deal with the intricacies of modern life. If anything, people need more good lawyers than ever before — smart, wise, honorable people to help navigate the increasingly byzantine regulations, to make sure the complex business deals actually work, to represent all the non-lawyers who keep suing each other in our litigious society. And of course to prosecute and defend those accused of crime.

The problem is that it’s way too easy to become a lawyer. If you’re not picky about where you go to school, you can get a J.D. despite having little aptitude for it. And the bar exam is a very low bar, believe it or not — you only need the equivalent of a “D” and once you get that “D” you never need to take it again. There are a lot of misguided people out there who go to law school for the wrong reasons, and graduate to keep filling the ranks of the “too many lawyers.”

So it made us uneasy to learn that people with high LSAT scores are significantly less likely to even apply to law school these days, while those with lower scores are still applying almost as much as before.

It’s not surprising, of course — obviously, smarter people are going to be more likely to realize that it’s harder to get a job as a lawyer these days, and decide to go elsewhere. But the upshot is that the proportion of “good” lawyers is only going to shrink, and the “too many” will become even more numerous.

The solution is to make the profession more picky about who can and cannot become a lawyer. The problem is how to do it.

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Back in the bad old days, of course, the problem was that the profession was more picky. Just in a bad way. Minorities were not welcome, women were not welcome. Hell, folks who needed to work for a living were not welcome — we didn’t want their kind, or their night schools. (Many of the ABA’s more bizarre accreditation requirements are holdovers from these bad old days.) So there are some historical negative connotations to making it harder to be a lawyer.

Nowadays, though, people who get upset at barriers to entry don’t really cry racism, sexism or classism any more. Instead, they cry protectionism — that those who have the jobs want to protect them from competition. Or they cry up the free market — let anyone try it who wants to, and let market forces shake out the chaff.

The protectionist argument is one of the stupidest arguments, ever. Increasing the number of sucky candidates isn’t going to have much of an effect on the hiring of qualified people. Seriously, nobody is afraid that sucky JDs are going to come along and take their jobs. Letting more of them in will only cause more competition for low-tier jobs, making the complainers’ problem worse. This argument tends to be made by dissatisfied law grads who find themselves unable to compete in the modern market, and making it kinda demonstrates why.

The free-market argument isn’t so much stupid as unwise. Those who make it tend to see the law as a business rather than a profession — they fail to realize that we have clients, not customers. Clients don’t just drop in, pay for a service, then leave; clients entrust lawyers to handle important life matters. Lawyers don’t sell commodities; they put aside their own interests to serve their clients, and the client’s interest comes first. We are fiduciaries, advisers, confidantes, and we are trusted to make decisions on our clients’ behalf.

This is not a relationship that free-market forces can regulate. Clients of bad lawyers suffer, but there is not much the market can do about it. In a free market, it’s nigh impossible for clients to tell a good lawyer from a bad one — asking around is only as useful as the people one knows to ask. Bad lawyers sometimes thrive, simply because their name is known. The way real people find lawyers in real life is essentially random. A free market also needs quick reaction to bad service, but bad lawyering may not have consequences until years too late to make a difference to the lawyer’s reputation. And clients who are unsophisticated enough to hire a bad lawyer in the first place aren’t as likely to realize that they got shafted. The free market just cannot work to price out bad lawyering very efficiently, if at all — and in the meantime what about the clients who suffered? It’s not like they can return their counsel like damaged goods — they’re stuck with the consequences. Relying on the market to price out the bad and reinforce the good is a recipe for injustice, and would make things even worse.

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The solution is to be, not protectionist, but (more…)

Better Criminal Lawyering through Smart Risk-Taking

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Judgment is the criminal lawyer’s stock-in-trade. The ability to assess the risks of a situation, and choose the better course of action, is the value that lawyers bring to the criminal justice system. It doesn’t matter if they’re defense attorneys negotiating a deal or fighting it out at trial, or if they’re prosecutors deciding whether and what to charge — their value is their judgment. The better the judgment, the better the lawyer.

It’s therefore critical that criminal lawyers have some understanding of how and why people take risks. In advising a client inclined to take a bad risk, the lawyer can’t really change that perception without knowing what’s causing it. And such an understanding also helps one spot one’s own inclinations to error before it’s too late.

This is not common sense. (In fact, common sense is usually the enemy here.) It’s insight. The ability to see how people act, and realize — aha! — why.

Fortunately for the rest of us, there are amazingly smart people out there who do that all day. When you find one with real insights about why people take the risks they do, you’re probably gonna want to listen.

That’s why we’re taking a moment to point you to Danny Kahneman (that’s his picture up there).

Who is Danny Kahneman, you ask. You’re not alone. If you’re not an economist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he won the Nobel Prize for basically inventing the field of Behavioral Economics. If you’re not a psychologist, you can be forgiven for not knowing he’s considered “one of the most influential psychologists in history, and certainly the most important psychologist alive today.” If you’re not a foreign-policy wonk, you can be forgiven for not knowing of his significant ideas on the evaluation of risks in wartime. He’s one of the most insightful and relevant people nobody’s ever heard of.

As it happens, a lot of his insights are directly relevant to the practice of criminal law. Trying to decide the likely outcome of that trial? You’re probably (more…)

Dear Whiners: Shut Up.

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

 

Hey. Gen-X lawyer here. Could those of you whining about your law schools and sucky job market please shut up? Thanks.

There’s something about the gripes of new and rising JDs that’s not unlike the same bleats we’re hearing from many “Occupy Wall Street” types: It’s the complaint that they did everything they were supposed to, and now instead of getting a living they’re getting fucked. They went to school, took out loans to pay for it, in the expectation that the payoff would be worth it. That there would be a job out there — more than a job, a lifelong career path. A secure income. But that’s not what they’re finding in the real world. The dream jobs aren’t out there — at least not for them. They’re starting their adult lives with an insane amount of debt, and no conceivable way to pay it off. They feel betrayed. They were promised all this, they did their part, and now society isn’t doing it’s part. So they rant online, some take to the streets to complain, and a few have even sued to enforce the deal they thought they’d made.

This is nothing new to those of our generation. When we graduated from college, the job market sucked big time — only the engineering students seemed to be in high demand, much to the chagrin of those of us with History (cough), Art and Philosophy majors. It was pretty bad when we graduated from law school, too — we knew many bright, talented young JDs who had to work as bartenders, online marketers, and the like before landing a lawyer job (and the ones who persisted, by the way, did wind up getting cool law jobs and are doing quite well).

It sucked, but we knew it was coming. We had no illusions about the economy. We didn’t expect Social Security to even be around any more by the time we’d reach retirement. The Baby Boom generation had spent their lives focusing on how awesome they were, and fucking things up for the rest of us, and we knew it very well. A Washington Post article from 1991 began:

Now adulthood looms, like a cookie jar that somebody else already picked clean. Will the busters [the phrase “Generation X” had yet to be coined, we were called lots of things] ever be able to match their parents’ standard of living? The cost of starting out in life — college and a first house — has been racing ahead of inflation and wages ever since they were born. Meantime, adults have rung up nearly $3 trillion in national debt in the busters’ brief lifetimes, virtually all of it on consumption for themselves. The busters will get stuck with the tab.”

Another article from the Atlantic in 1992 (calling us the “thirteeners” — the 13th generation of U.S. history) described us thus:

After graduation they’re the ones with big loans who were supposed to graduate into jobs and move out of the house but didn’t, and who seem to get poorer the longer they’ve been away from home — unlike their parents at that age, who seemed to get richer. …

In them lies much of the doubt, distress and endangered dream of late twentieth-century America. As a group they aren’t what older people ever wanted but rather what they themselves know they need to be: pragmatic, quick, sharp-eyed, able to step outside themselves and understand how the world really works. From the Thirteener vantage point, America’s greatest need these days is to clear out the underbrush of name-calling and ideology so that simple things can work again.  Others don’t yet see it, but today’s young people are beginning to realize that their upbringing has endowed them with a street sense and pragmatism their elders lack. Many admit they are a bad generation — but so, too, do they suspect that they are a necessary generation for a society in dire need of survival lessons.

When they look into the future, they see a much bleaker vision than any of today’s older generations ever saw in their own youth. Polls show that Thirteeners believe it will be much harder for them to get ahead than it was for their parents — and that they are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the long-term fate of their generation and nation. They sense that they’re the clean-up crew, that their role in history will be sacrificial — that whatever comeuppance America has to face, they’ll bear more than their share of the burden. It’s a new twist, and not a happy one, on the American Dream.”

And you know what we think when we hear Millenials whining? The children of those self-absorbed Boomers, who gave them awards just for showing up, who slathered them with praise and “self-esteem” without actually making them do anything to earn it? (more…)

The Legal Profession Needs More Bars to Entry, Not Fewer

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

On the New York Times op-ed page today, Clifford Winston asks the question “Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?” The writer, an economist with the left-ish Brookings Institution think tank, answers with a resounding “no.” They only increase the cost of entry into the profession — and thus the cost of legal services — while doing nothing to ensure the quality, honesty and accountability of the lawyers performing said services.

His diagnosis is on the nose, but his prescription is bad. He is right that simply graduating from an ABA-accredited law school and passing the bar are not sufficient quality control. But his solution — eliminating such barriers to entry — is the exact wrong approach. If anything, the barriers to entry need to be higher.

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Law school, as experienced by most law students, is an enormous investment with little application to the actual practice of law. The first year is great for teaching how to spot issues and do the necessary legal research to answer questions, and for instilling core principles that underlie our jurisprudence. But beyond that first year, the time spent in class after class could be better spent in an apprenticeship where one learns how the law is actually practiced — and more importantly, acquiring the experience and judgment required to advise and deal with clients. Apart from the exceptional few who truly get a lot out of their continuing studies as preparation for real life — in particular, those who take advantage of clinical programs — law school after year 1 is a bit of a wasted opportunity for the run-of-the-mill students

The cost of law school is staggering, but only in part because of the requirements of maintaining ABA accreditation. These costs could be trimmed. The law library is the single greatest mandatory expense, what with the required accumulation of endless paper volumes of statutes, regulations, case law, treatises and their myriad pocket parts and updates. It’s a required expense, but not a necessary one, especially as everything’s been available digitally since forever.

Most of the cost of law school is not mandated, but the result of simple supply-and-demand. Tons of people want to go to law school, either to fulfill a calling or to make money or get status or just kill time until they find themselves. The demand drives up tuitions. Add to that the subsidy of student loans, and the price gets driven ever higher. Costs, on the other hand, remain fairly low. Staffing is not an enormous cost, considering. The ratio of students to professors is huge. When you figure 400 students in a section, each paying however many tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, the salaries of the handful of professors teaching them account for a minor fraction of it. Because of this, and the apparently endless supply of prospective students, law schools are a veritable cash cow — which is why so many have popped into existence in recent decades.

One byproduct of all these new law schools is a dilution of the quality of legal education, and thus the quality of many graduates with a JD. This is not to denigrate those with degrees from lower-tier schools, many of whom provide better services than some top-tier grads after gaining greater experience in the trenches. But whenever someone complains about “too many lawyers,” what they’re really complaining about is “too many bad lawyers.” Making it harder to get into law school, and then making it harder to actually get one of those JDs once there, would weed out many of the incompetent and misguided before they can do any damage to a real client.

The solution is not to abolish law school, but to make it harder and more relevant. Change the accreditation standards away from expense for its own sake (which, like several other such ABA standards like those for evening students, are actually holdovers from an earlier time when they existed to discourage minorities and those who needed to work for a living from joining the profession), and instead make the accreditation turn on selectivity of admissions and the quality of education provided. Require clinical courses (another astronomical expense, but one which makes sense). Require a uniform grade curve, so that performance can be measured accurately across multiple schools. Require practical courses alongside the general and theoretical, especially in the second and third years. Require more rigorous training in practical ethics, not just the bare-minimum survey everyone’s been doing since the ’70s.

Don’t eliminate the barrier; make it meaningful.

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With respect to the bar exam, as we’ve said before, nobody in their right mind believes (more…)

When All Eyes are On Them

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

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. It’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 (more…)

Modern Law Ain’t Modern Art

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Technology freed art to transcend itself.  After photography took on the job of realistic imagery, art was free to explore new forms of expression.  New ways of visualizing things.  New things to visualize.  Using technique or color or shape to fire the viewer’s neurons in new and unexpected ways.  Art evolved, for a time, to a place where art itself was no longer the point.  The greatest artist could be one who created no art, but only his persona.  As James Salter put it, “an artist freed from the demands of craft, an artist of concepts, generosity; his work is the creation of the legend of himself.  So long as he is provided with even a single follower he can believe in the sanctity of his design.”

A fair number of lawyers seem to think the same way about the law — that the technology of the internet has allowed us to transcend experience and craft, and create a superior facsimile online.  Success comes not from hard work done well, but from connecting with people online.  Reputation comes not from the results earned for one’s clients, but from the number of Twitter followers one has.  Praise yourself online often enough, and get enough other similar artistes to praise you, and you too can be great.

Just so you know, it doesn’t work that way.  Other lawyers aren’t going to refer their next big codefendant to you based on your Klout score, but on whether you’ve got the real-life skills and experience to do the job well.  Clients who retained you based on your self-puffery aren’t going to recommend you to others once they find out (and they will) that you were out of your league.  Lawyer referrals and client references are the two biggest sources of new business you’ll ever have.  If you’re investing all your time on building a killer online presence and maximizing your social media, you might want to reconsider.  A better investment of your time would be (more…)

So You’re a New Lawyer Hanging Out Your Shingle? Here’s Some Advice

Friday, August 19th, 2011

(Our last couple of posts about law school and recent graduates were a bit negative, focusing on those who are entering the profession for the wrong reasons.  But what about those who are doing it for all the right reasons?  They are in the majority, after all.  Well, this one’s for them.)

There’s plenty of talk around the blawgosphere these days of fresh young law graduates looking to start their own practices.  Some are hanging out their own shingle because they couldn’t find the right kind of job out of law school.  Some are doing it because that’s what they always wanted to do in the first place.  Either way, it’s a decision that takes a certain kind of entrepreneurial mindset.  Most lawyers we know would rather not own their own practice, because at least working for someone else you’re making steady reliable money with which to pay for such things as rent and debt.  When hearing of someone starting their own practice, they often say nice things like “how brave” or “that took some guts,” to which the new solo typically responds (in his head) “really?”  The kind of person likely to go solo isn’t the kind of person who thinks it’s a brave thing to do; they do it because it feels right for them.  Maybe they’re happier being their own boss.  Maybe they’re risk-takers by nature.  Whatever the reason, it’s what they’re comfortable doing.

So if you’re one of the newly-minted JDs thinking of going solo, hats off to you.

That said, however, there are some things you probably ought to be aware of.  There’s been a fair amount of foofaraw online about the ethical and disciplinary pitfalls out there.  All the warnings are true.  Read them and take heed.  These warnings are not threats.  They are not the crazed jabber of old farts trying to keep you out of their territory.  Ignore those who say otherwise; they are displaying poor judgment.

Lawyer ethics is not a trap for the unwary.  It is not a minefield of hidden dangers.  It’s pretty much common sense for anyone who has a sense of the law as a profession, rather than a business.  The rules are very simple:

  1. The client comes first.
  2. Know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth.
  3. Only take on a case if you can actually handle it competently.
  4. Never misrepresent anything to anybody, ever.  This includes what you say or imply about yourself online.

It’s not hard.  If you think these are scary rules, or that they’re designed to make it harder for you to make a buck, then please do not practice law — you have missed the whole point.  If you understand that your role as a lawyer is to protect the interests of your clients, who have entrusted to you matters that are of great importance in their lives, then these rules should elicit nothing more than a “duh, of course” from you.  You should wonder why such rules even need to be mentioned.  They are obvious and self-evident.

So enough of the rules.  We’ll presume that you have the necessary mindset to go it alone, and practice ethically.  What more do you need to know?

Although the practice of law has changed a bit over the past 15 years or so — with the rise of the internet, email, computerized research and all that — you don’t care about any of those changes because you’re just starting out.  The last thing you need is someone telling you how things work in the digital age.

What you probably don’t know, however, are some of the nuts and bolts of building a successful law practice.  So here are a few things to get you started:

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First, make sure you (more…)