First, there’s the high cost of legal services. And then there’s the frequent gap between cost-to-benefit. Worse yet there’s the overweening arrogance of some practitioners.
Think self-absorbed, mordacious Mavis Gary, the unlikeable ex-prom queen turned “author” played by Charlize Theron in ‘Young Adult,” the cynically dark comedy I saw yesterday. I can see law school in Mavis’s future.
Or for another instance, there’s Brian Tannebaum’s “who gives a crap?” philosophy eschewing lawyers who hand out business cards, “if there’s a reason we should talk again, we’ll find each other. Trust me, if I need to remember you, I will.” See “The Practice: Enough with the Worthless Networking.”
Then again, there’s a certain pompous personal injury lawyer who vets prospective clients by reducing them to tears by rudely second-guessing their injuries during an initial interview. Here must be the thinking. Someone’s got to toughen up a would-be client for contumelious cross-examination, so it might as well be your own castigating advocate. Too bad ‘asshole’ isn’t part of the protocol for good bedside manner or this guy could be on to something.
But even with that, another reason consumers avoid lawyer services is the arcane, jargon-filled confusion. It’s time-consuming. And it can be more frustrating than a shell game and a lot less fun than hiding-the-salami.
And with law schools churning out a record excess supply of lawyers despite deeply-cratered demand, it’s no wonder one metaphor-mixing columnist likened lawyers to locusts who beaver away on society. See Jim Barlow’s “Lawyers respected till they took over” – Houston Chronicle.
AveryIndex puts out a state-by-state breakdown, Highest Per Capita Lawyers, that puts an already-high per capita number even higher depending on where you live. Also see “Documenting the Justice Gap in America.”
With such numbers, you’d think humility would be way up and prices would be way down.
So what’s a consumer to do? First, they have to get past the initial consultation ‘disconnect’ between what some lawyers believe they’re supposed to provide prospective clients versus what potential clients think they’re supposed to get from their lawyer.
One young lawyer I know tells newbie lawyers that the purpose of an initial consultation is not to give legal advice! Instead, it’s for the lawyer and prospective client to identify conflicts of interest; to see if the lawyer and client prospect want to work together; and for the lawyer to explain how the representation would proceed if the potential client hires counsel.
One might think there should be a bit more. At least a client might think so since more and more, there’s a cost associated with imparting such underwhelming wisdom. The above-mentioned young lawyer, who also disdains “free consultations,” charges $200 for a one-hour initial office consultation. And notwithstanding that $200 tariff, the lawyer incredibly asserts that lawyers aren’t supposed to give legal advice until they’ve been hired!
Memo to practitioners.
Consumers make appointments to see lawyers because they want advice about a legal issue or problem. It’s not to help the lawyer determine if there’s a conflict of interest or because they want the lawyer to explain how the representation is going to proceed. It isn’t even necessarily to see if they like the lawyer, although that’s important if the lawyer has the odoriferous personality of an acre of garlic.
To cut through the self-serving justifications, there’s a reason state bar consumer advisories frame their advice concerning first meetings with lawyers. The Virginia State Bar recommends consumers prepare for a first meeting by writing “a short summary of your case, including facts and dates and a list of questions you want answered.” See “Selecting and Working with a Lawyer – Virginia State Bar.”
The Georgia State Bar also has a consumer pamphlet covering the same subject, telling potential clients, “The first time that you meet with a lawyer, you should be prepared to discuss and ask questions in regards to the facts of the potential legal problem that brings you to the lawyer’s office.”
The Georgia Bar even provides sample questions, such as “Based on my situation, do I have a legal problem? Make sure you fully explain your situation to your lawyer. Bring any papers or documents you think may help explain the story to the initial consultation. Make sure your lawyer covers both practical solutions to the problems as well as options available under the law.” See “How to Choose a Lawyer – State Bar of Georgia.“
And indeed, to further buttress the belief that consultations involve more than a ‘meet and greet,’ the ABA Model Rule 1.18, “Duties to Prospective Clients” was amended in 2002. Arizona ethics expert David Dodge has a good analysis of that rule change at “The Prospective Client.” Also see “When is a client a client?”
And what about the client who has paid the consultation fee, only to belatedly find that the lawyer can’t or won’t represent them? An ethics opinion from the District of Columbia Bar says “the attorney bears the responsibility for seeing that there is no likelihood of misunderstanding as to fee arrangements.” See “Ethics Opinion 4: Propriety of Charging Fee for Preliminary Investigation of Client’s Case in Absence of Agreement Between Attorney and Client.”
Final note to prospective clients.
So here’s the upshot for would-be clients whether paying $50 or several hundred dollars for an initial consultation, know upfront what you’re getting for that money. While it’s not a new best friend, it’s also not merely a kick-in-the-wallet. Also see “Tips on Hiring a Private Attorney” | The People’s Law Library and “Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer” – The Law Guide and “How Can I Find and Hire the Right Lawyer?” – The State Bar of California.