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Monday, September 22, 2014

3 Things Your Lawyer Wants To Tell You... But Won’t

Working at a law firm which serves a large number of middle-to-low-income families is, at once, both tremendously fulfilling and profoundly frustrating.  On the one hand, you get to help people who simply couldn’t get legal help otherwise.  On the other hand, you work with people who have little to no real understanding of the law, and sometimes it’s harder work to simply explain what you’re doing than to actually do it.  Add to this the fact that the overwhelming majority of these individuals have had some exposure to the law – but most of it through romanticized or caricatured versions for television, colloquial anecdotes from family and friends, or, heaven help me, the Internet.  Top it all off with the uncomfortable circumstance of being in a customer service situation with someone who has been irrevocably infused with that most of American of maxims: “The customer is always right.” (NOTE – this is absolutely false).  Lawyers are nothing if not careless with their criticisms, and just because they haven’t said anything pointed to you doesn’t mean they don’t want to.  So, in deference to my sisters and brothers in arms, fighting the good fight with a well-bitten tongue, here are 3 things your lawyer really wants to say to you (but won’t):

1. Leave it to Me.  No matter what you think you know about the law, please shut up and listen to your lawyer.  Coming in to hire me and then telling me how you think it should be done is like going to your doctor and giving him the diagnosis you got from WebMD – or even worse, from one of your friends who had (what they think is) a similar disease.  Just like doctors, lawyers have been to a lot of school – and since then, they’ve been practicing and learning even more law.  Lawyers have a great number of reasons to be right when they give you advice, not including just bare professionalism (e.g. malpractice insurance premiums, avoiding ethical complaints and personal pride) and treating their advice as suspect ignores all of the existing procedures in place for licensing attorneys in lieu of your own marginally reliable “gut instinct.”  The only thing you should be using what legal knowledge you do have for is listening carefully.  The law you see on television and in movies is just as useful as the medicine you see with it.  No one is looking to Grey's Anatomy for a diagnosis - so stop looking to Law & Order for pointers to give us.  It’s not that you don’t know what you’re talking about… nope; no, wait, that’s exactly what it is.

2.  You Are NOT Paying Too Much.  After having now worked at both ends of the pricing spectrum for legal services, I can confidently tell you this: no matter what you charge for legal representation, people will think it’s too much.  Because we all want to believe that if we, or our kids, study to become lawyers, that it will make us fantastically wealthy – after all, this is why we accept the insane cost and inflation of law school tuition.  But once we go to hire a lawyer, we’re suddenly looking for discounts – as though “Lawyer” was just another aisle in our favorite “big box” retailer rather than a centuries-old institution, as old as the law, itself.  Lawyers, like doctors, give themselves to a life of service.  Just because they (the ones on TV and/or the real ones) make it look easy doesn’t mean you could do it if you just had a little time to study up and practice.  I once thought this about field goal kicking – and despite being a pretty solid athlete, holy crap was I wrong about that.  Don’t take our word for it, go try it out on your own – that way when you finally do come in for help, we know it won’t be to ask us just to hold the ball for you to kick.

3.  No We Don’t Want To Help For Free.  You know what they say, once you’ve got a lawyer in the family, the whole family’s got a lawyer.  Unless they don’t have a family, every lawyer you know gets hit up by their family members (no matter how far removed) for free legal advice.  Now, don’t get me wrong, when my dad or my sister (both of whom are responsible for me getting this far, in the first place) needs help, I’m happy to answer the bell – but it’s never just those folks.  Pretty soon, anyone connected enough to make it into your Facebook or LinkedIn roster feels confident enough to sly some advice out of you in the guise of a casual chat.  Worst of all, no one seems to realize that “lawyer” is no more accurate a job title than “doctor” – because like the medical profession, we specialize, and just because the Bar Exam covers all of the law doesn’t mean we do.  So, when we say that we don’t know, it’s not because we don’t want to help you, it’s because we can’t.  And when we refer you to someone else, we’re not just handing you off to avoid the work – we’re sending you to someone more qualified that we are to do it (if we can do it at all).  And finally, because we will always take a few moments to see if we can quickly help – when you to get to that point where you’re wondering if you should really be paying for the help you’re getting – yes, you should.  Do us both a favor and offer.

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Becoming a lawyer was a grand and important moment in my life.  I had never held a position of public trust like it before, and I will likely hold no greater office in the future.  Sure, being a uniformed service member always afforded me a great measure of respect from others (for which I am humbled and grateful), but we weren’t trusted with anything more than the collective safety of the nation – which was important but distant.  We were never the only person standing between you and your enemy - you were as far off to us as the enemy was to you.  Lawyers, on the other hand, are trusted – with secrets, with problems, with unimaginable injustices and impossible situations to help with.  We are only strangers to those who aren’t yet clients – and the line between them is as thin as simply asking for our help.  Lawyer jokes are as ignorantly anachronistic as corporal punishment for children, opposition to gay marriage and criminalizing marijuana use – and should be similarly eliminated from our public consciousness.  But nevertheless, even if the tired old commentaries don’t stop, we’ll still stand quietly by and wait – for that moment when you realize you need us, and the only judgment we’ll offer is the one you’re looking for from the court.


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