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Archive for the ‘Legal ethics.’ Category

$112.50 to prepare a client’s invoice? Anecdotally, I’ve heard of lawyers charging clients for the time it takes to prepare a client’s bill. But from a client’s perspective, it’s a practice almost guaranteed to piss off a client. The only thing worse would be the lawyer who then charges the client when she calls for an explanation of the bill.1

Back in the olden days, lawyers, particularly the silk-stocking Big Law set may have arguably had a cricket’s crack of justification. In those days, big firms used pencils, prayer beads and abacuses to track hours on written daily time sheets. Accounting departments compiled the time sheets and produced pre-bills for partners to sprinkle with holy water before producing a final bill. That old-fashioned process took time and a lot of holy water.

But too bad for law firms big and small that still want to charge for preparing a bill. For almost 20 years now, lawyers have been able to use timekeeping and billing software to efficiently produce invoices in mere minutes.

Not to say that improved timekeeping and bill preparation necessarily means lower client invoices. After all, lawyers, myself included, are known to invoke the oft-quoted and genuflected Abe Lincoln maxim, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.”

But billing time notwithstanding, it’s not always time and advice lawyers sell to their clients. As Am Law Daily noted in the bankruptcy case of dog-killing pro footballer Michael Vick, his law firm invoiced him for $2.6 million in fees and expenses for 7,200 billable hours of work over ten months. The bill, however, also included the cost of running air conditioning during the weekend; taxi rides home for employees working late; and $1,200 for plane tickets from New York to Kansas. A judge subsequently reduced the bill.

Client push-back and ethical duty.

After a decade of flat wage growth; economic retreat and growing income inequality, consumers are increasingly price and value conscious. Lawyers also face ongoing competitive pressures from brick-and-mortar and online non-lawyer legal services providers.

Forget the arrogant nonsense that clients still have an expectation of getting hosed by their lawyers. Even if clients ever had that expectation, they certainly were never happy about it. When it comes to today’s practice of law, there’s more and more client push-back on fees and greater scrutiny on billing. I think this is a good thing.

As I’ve posted before here and here, when it comes to the reasonableness of attorney’s fees it’s like beauty — in the eye of the beholder. And this even when lawyers are supposed to be ethically guided by objective reasonableness standards under Ethical Rule 1.5.

Yet it’s really not that hard. First, a written attorney-client fee agreement is essential although as most lawyers know, it’s not necessarily the final word. Second, tow the line on the professional duty that lawyers owe their clients, which is to advance the client’s interest under the limits set by law.

1152762_left_hand_silhouette-_womanAs Kathryn Thompson further explains at “Let’s be Reasonable” in The ABA Journal, “A breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship that culminates in the lawyer withdrawing or being discharged frequently sets the stage for violations of Rule 1.5. Lawyers often run afoul of the rule’s reasonableness requirement in the process of terminating the relationship or when defending against disciplinary complaints by the client. In both situations, lawyers sometimes fall into the trap of improperly billing for activities that advance their own interests rather than fulfill their obligation to the client.”

Not often and not always, lawyers do get disciplined for ethics violations involving improper billing practices. For example, Kathryn Thompson also mentions the Indiana lawyer whose suspension was upheld by the state supreme court for among other things, billing his client for time spent reading the client’s representation termination letter and for then billing the client for post-termination work. See Matter of Comstock.

So in the context of billing clients, the better ethical posture is to always ask whether or not the fees charged were reasonably expended to advance the client’s interest — not the lawyer’s. By that measure, weekend air conditioning, taxi rides and bill preparation shouldn’t pass muster.

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[1] And then there’s the worn-out lawyer joke about the new client who comes to see the lawyer. “Can you tell me how much you charge?”, asks the client. “Of course”, the lawyer replies, “I charge $300 to answer three questions!” “Well that’s a bit steep, isn’t it?” “Yes it is”, says the lawyer, “And what’s your third question?”

Photo Credits: Photos from Morguefile.com, no attribution required.

 

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So Friday afternoon the Arizona Supreme Court’s Task Force on State Bar of Arizona Mission and Governance posted its draft report to the sound of one-handed clapping. Anyone inclined to read the report can visit the court’s webpage.

But since the proverbial die is cast, it makes no difference that after-the-fact comments are being solicited from the hoi polloi.  Any remarks from the naked unwashed will be just in time to be too late and as inessential as a take-a-penny, leave-a-penny tray on a 7-11 counter.

The state high court will do as it pleases and it will please to keep the status quo: a compulsory state bar — just as the Task Force recommends. The rest of the recommendations are much ado about not much, such as recommending a smaller cast of characters now called “trustees” instead of “governors” to oversee policy-making and operations. As previously reported here and here, the Task Force, its report and recommendations will remain largely cosmetic and so inconsequential as to have a thimbleful’s worth of relevance to members.

Integrated not compulsory.

morguefile.com photo

The Task Force prefers dressing up the compulsory nature of the official state organization to which all attorneys must belong and where pay-to-play is the required precondition to earn a living as lawyers. Rather than “mandatory” or “obligatory” or “compulsory,” like state bar elites elsewhere, they’re partial to innocuous modifiers such as “integrated.” Other favorites include, “incorporated” or “organized” or “unified” to describe their state organizations — anything to disguise the fact that unlike physicians, architects, CPAs, dentists, engineers and tattoo artists, only lawyers are singled out for compelled dues-playing professional state association membership for ‘the privilege’ of earning a living in their chosen profession.

Clarifications.

The work of the Task Force has been mostly below-the-radar. This is typical of a state bar that treats transparency like Arizonans treat the amount of window tinting used to shield themselves from the desert sun. Unsurprisingly, one year after its creation, the odds are good most Arizona lawyers know little if anything about the Task Force. And now, they’re asked to comment about something they know little to nothing about.

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The final draft report was kicked off with a video, which I watched while wrapping up my Friday afternoon work. I’ve yet to read the 116-page report. All the same, surprises? Expect none — unless the Task Force’s risible consultation with the California State Bar counts as one.

For now, here are a couple of needed clarifications after watching the announcement video:

1) Contrary to the Task Force’s assertions, voluntary state bar jurisdictions like New York, Indiana, Illinois and Colorado amply demonstrate that lawyer regulation and discipline are not dependent on the existence of a compulsory bar. In those voluntary bar states, the state supreme courts handle those functions.

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The State Bar of Arizona, however, would like nothing better than to continue perpetuating an absurd mythology that lawyers can’t be regulated or disciplined or the public protected without a compulsory membership bar association. New York, Indiana, Illinois and Colorado and 14 other states beg to differ. Those voluntary bar jurisdictions have robust regulatory and public protection programs in place without tramping on First Amendment associational freedoms.

Apples and oranges.

Ev Williams | by Christopher.Michel

2) Captain Obvious needs to point out that voluntary bar states are by plain meaning, “voluntary.” Unlike Arizona, lawyers can choose to pay their respective supreme courts only for lawyer regulation and discipline — and forgo joining a voluntary state bar. So what’s the point of comparisons between the cost to practice in Arizona with that of voluntary bar states where membership is optional? Why make comparisons between jurisdictions that seem to share a common denominator such as payment of lawyer registration fees while ignoring the fact that the jurisdictions are distinct from one another.

Besides, in virtually all instances, lawyers practicing in voluntary bar states have lower costs to practice than in Arizona — a fact the Task Force prefers Arizona lawyers not know. Instead, the Task Force speciously plays the false analogy game.

morguefile.com photo

A more accurate comparison is to only compare the court-mandated lawyer registration fees for regulation, discipline and client protection among the jurisdictions. After all, lawyer regulation and discipline are the core public protection functions and ought not to be freighted with the bureaucratic surplusage tacked on by mandatory bar associations for non-mandatory programs and activities. Otherwise, it’s all so much nonsensical claptrap, although the apples and oranges comparisons are conveniently self-serving.

Apples and apples.

morguefile.com photo

Take the voluntary bar state of Indiana, where the supreme court charges $180 per year for regulation and discipline. Membership in the voluntary Indiana bar association is $280 (6+ years of practice). Total cost to practice in Indiana is $460 if an Indiana lawyer also saw fit to join the voluntary bar. Otherwise, the cost to practice in Indiana is a $180 registration fee payable to the Indiana Supreme Court. This is a lower cost to practice than Arizona, which is currently $475 but increasing to $520 by January 1, 2018.

morguefile.com photo

Or take Illinois where lawyers pay the court an annual registration of $382, which includes regulation and discipline but is also larded with mandatory payments to the Lawyers Trust Fund ($95) for pro bono legal aid; Lawyers Assistance Program ($7); Commission on Professionalism ($25) and Client Protection Program ($25). Voluntary membership dues in the Illinois State Bar Association run from “Free” in year one to a cap of $320 in year 20. Certainly, if you combine both the court registration fees and voluntary bar association membership dues, the total cost to practice in Illinois of $702– far more than what lawyers pay in Arizona.

But what the task force conveniently omits is that there’s more than meets the eye concerning membership in voluntary bar jurisdictions. Membership in the voluntary Illinois State Bar Association also entitles members to 15 hours of FREE CLE per year. If you factor what Arizona lawyers pay for CLE, which can run upwards of $600 per year (15 hours X $40 average), the total cost to practice in Illinois is far lower than Arizona.

Registration desk sign | by NHS Confederation

And in Connecticut, another voluntary bar state that on paper looks higher than Arizona with an attorney registration fee of $665, of that amount, $565 is a separate tax that goes to the State of Connecticut Department of Revenue Services — not to the court for lawyer regulation and discipline. Meantime, membership in the voluntary Connecticut State Bar Association runs zero in year one up to $280 for admittees prior to 7/10/10. The total, excluding the $565 state tax, is less than $400 assuming a Connecticut lawyer also opted to join the voluntary bar. Otherwise, they would just pay the hefty $665 annual fee.

In Colorado, lawyers pay an annual attorney registration fee of $325 to cover regulation and discipline. Membership in the Colorado Bar Association is voluntary. New lawyers pay $100 per year and so-called senior lawyers licensed 8+ years pay $230 annually. Assuming Colorado lawyers wanted to belong to the voluntary bar association, their total annual fees would total $555.

Payment | by GotCredit

Finally, in the voluntary bar jurisdiction of New York, the attorney registration fees of $375 payable to the court are biennial, i.e., due every two years. This amount includes $60 to the Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection; $50 to the Indigent Legal Services Fund; and $25 to the Legal Services Assistance Fund. However, New York lawyers wanting to belong to the voluntary state bar association pay $275 annually if they were admitted prior to 2006. This means that on an annualized basis, New York lawyers pay $462 if they chose to join their voluntary state bar association along with payment to the court for regulation and discipline. This is still less than what lawyers in Arizona pay.

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Photos: Registration desk sign, by NHS Confederation at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution;Ev Williams by Christopher Michel at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution, Payment by GotCredit at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution.

 

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I had bats on my mind yesterday. First there was the report Thursday about bats causing pandemonium sending people screaming from an Arkansas courtroom. I’ve been in really old courthouses and know that rodents live there but this was a first concerning bats. Bats in the belfry Then also last night, I read not about bats but brickbats thrown by the Ninth Circuit over another case of prosecutorial malfeasance. Railing as I have over time, about the persistence of prosecutorial misconduct, for instance, here, here, here, here, here and here, all those posts have started to seem “like the [impotent] vaporings of the fellow with a large flock of bats in his belfry.”

 

Prosecutor punishment rare.

So here I am back in the same belfry. The problem is that state judges rarely punish the misconduct by at the very least, referring the wrongdoing prosecutors to state disciplinary authorities or at best, by sanctioning the transgressors by reversing the convictions. Furthermore, state bars hardly ever bring disciplinary complaints on their own against prosecutors. Consequently, state supreme courts almost never disbar prosecutors for dereliction, lying, or for failing to disclose evidence to the defense that deprives defendants of a fair trial. Baca v Adams. Courtroom 93The Los Angeles Times’ always insightful Legal Affairs Reporter reported last night about a January 8, 2015 Ninth Circuit hearing and the stern admonishment from the 3-judge panel about prosecutorial lying and the heedlessness of watchdogs in bringing misconduct to heel. See “U.S. Judges see ‘epidemic’ of prosecutorial misconduct in state.” Citing Napue v. Illinois, 360 US 264 (1959), which held that “the failure of the prosecutor to correct the testimony of the witness which he knew to be false denied petitioner due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the three judges were not amused in the unheralded case of Johnny Baca v Derral Adams, which was the subject of the hearing. Per Napue, prosecutors cannot suborn perjury — or lie as happened in the Baca case. 1152762_left_hand_silhouette-_womanAnd questioning why bad things don’t happen to people doing bad Judge Alex Kozinski declared, “You know it’s a little disconcerting when the state puts on evidence, the evidence turns out to be fabricated and nothing happens to the lawyer and nothing happens to the witness. So I have to doubt the sincerity of the State when it says it was a big mistake.” It was hardly a surprise, then, that given the findings of the state appeals court that the prosecutor lied and their own readings of the Baca file, that the judges wanted the State to back off. Judge Kozinski additionally noted that though the state appellate court found the prosecutor lied — since no discipline had been meted, then he opined that prosecutors “got caught this time but they are going to keep doing it because they have state judges who are willing to look the other way.” Watch the videotaped hearing below at about the 28:30 minute mark for equally biting criticisms, including Judge Kozinski questioning the absence of any inquiry or discipline by the state attorney general into the misconduct.

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/36/Kamala_Harris_Official_Attorney_General_Photo.jpg/160px-Kamala_Harris_Official_Attorney_General_Photo.jpg

Calif Attorney General Kamala Harris

However, given the keen political shrewdness of California State Attorney General Kamala Harris who now aspires to succeed Barbara Boxer in the US Senate, she spared her office further embarrassment by timely accommodating the strong judicial intimations to stand down. Last Thursday when the bats were flying in De Queen, Arkansas, she and the new Riverside County D.A. filed the following motion: As for myself, unlike one optimistic commentator, who opined after the hearing, “Prosecutors who suborn perjury may finally have to pay the piper,” here in my belfry, I’m still skeptical.

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Photo Credits: New Bat, by Windell Oskay at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License; Bat in Belfry at The Phrase Finder http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bats-in-the-belfry.html; Round Rock, TX: Mexican Free-Tailed Bats by Roy Niswanger at Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License; Kamala Harris, by http://oag.ca.gov/about, official photo, California State Attorney General, Wikipedia Commons, public domain; kdjfdkjdkl.jpg by greyerbaby at morguefile.com license .

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Wisconsin lawyer Michael Cicchini dropped another provocative “truth bomb” this week at The Legal Watchdog entitled, “The lawyer job market.”

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Cicchini posted about how ridiculously difficult it still is for jobless lawyers who are forced to choose self-employment when they’re unable to find full-time paying law firm work. An advertisement he recently received for work at the pleasure of the Racine Circuit Court made his point.

Despite an improving economy, new lawyers face daunting challenges. Blame the continuing glut of lawyers as well as irreversible changes to 21st century client expectations impacting the legal profession’s cost, profit and pricing structures.

While the good news is that the number of persons taking the Law School Admission Test has reached record lows, the transformative economic strictures continue to hold sway.

Preposterously penurious pay.

As for the advertisement Cicchini received, the County Circuit Court in Racine, Wisconsin is looking for an “advocate counsel” and the pay is an unbelievable $25,000 per year. Don’t expect expense reimbursement or job security. It’s terminable at-will.

The ad then goes on to state that “attorneys may be assigned any type of felony [including homicide], misdemeanor, juvenile, criminal traffic, and probate cases and any other action as the court orders . . . It is estimated that there will be about 70 – 80 assignments in 2015 per attorney.” Read the rest of Cicchini’s post here.

The quality of unfairness.

As an experienced criminal defense lawyer, Cicchini properly points out that this kind of caseload is “nearly impossible” for any lawyer — let alone a newbie hoping to do thorough, ethically unimpeachable legal work for clients.

Admittedly, there was more than enough in the court’s advertisement to annoy any lawyer — not the least being the overt professional discourtesy of lawyers trying to screw over other lawyers, i.e., those desperate enough to apply for such a demanding job at such penurious pay.

And who were the one’s being so discourteous? Cicchini speculates “this proposal was presumably authored with input from the Racine County judges themselves.”

But beyond exploiting economically hard-pressed young lawyers, there’s another even more disturbing consideration. What does this job say about exacerbating the continuing disparities of justice meted out to indigent defendants by overburdened, under-resourced public defenders? Studies have amply demonstrated that “public defenders do not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients – many of whom are low-income earners and people of color.” See, for instance, System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense.”

Ethical hazards.

But beyond the above-mentioned concerns, it was the potential ethical minefields created by the job that also got my dander up. As one commentator observed, “the deck is stacked” against solos as it is. Writing at “Ethical Hazards of Solo and Small Firm Practice,” Benjamin Cowgill axiomatically notes that nationwide, solos and small firms bear the brunt of most bar complaints. One reason, among many, arises from their chosen areas of practice, criminal defense being one of the riskier.

So what does this lousy job in Racine with its heavy caseload at rock-bottom pay say about how far ethical concerns are discounted in Cheesehead Land?

Politics Law & Finance 43Just a few years ago the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran an excellent comprehensive investigative report about the sorry state of Wisconsin’s attorney discipline system. The newspaper reviewed almost 24,000 Wisconsin lawyers against state and federal court records and “found that lawyers who are convicted of crimes are then subjected to a slow-moving disciplinary system that operates largely behind closed doors.” It went on to underscore the patently obvious that “Wisconsin appears to be comparatively lenient in dealing with lawbreaking lawyers.

“Unlike many other states, where the licenses of lawyers convicted of serious crimes such as fraud are immediately suspended to give regulators time to determine the proper sanction, Wisconsin sometimes allows criminals to keep their law licenses even while they are behind bars.”

Hilariously hubristic hypocrisy.

So front and center comes this challenging low-paying job in Racine that just reeks of potential ethical hazard for the unwary and overburdened.

And yet, maybe I’m overstating the hazard? After all, it appears not much has changed since 2011, at least when it comes to lawyer discipline in Wisconsin. Indeed, earlier this summer there was a lawyer discipline case reported by “The Legal Profession Blog” ironically highlighting “Calls to Reform Wisconsin Attorney Discipline” made by none other than Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamsom and Justice David Prosser. Given the facts of that case, both expressed agreement on the need to study and reform the Wisconsin attorney discipline system.

But here was the irony and the not insignificant brass. Along with Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, the Wisconsin high court has hardly been an exemplar of professional comportment.
Some 6 months after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran its investigative series on the state’s embarrassing absence of meaningful attorney discipline, Justice Bradley made headline-grabbing allegations involving her purported physical altercation with Justice Prosser. See “Bradley says Prosser choked her.”

But after all the he-said/she-said, no criminal charges were ever filed although Justice Prosser did get charged with ethics violations. However, lo and behold and consistent with how things apparently roll in Wisconsin, multiple recusals led to no quorum, which meant no determination of discipline could be made against Justice Prosser. So, the charges were dropped. Later the same year, he eked out a 7,006 reelection win over Joanne Kloppenburg.

And so he sits on the high bench in 2014 opining along with his chief justice who he previously disrespected about how Wisconsin’s attorney discipline system needs reform.

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Photo Credits: Talking with Hands, Wikimedia Commons; Half the pay, twice the work by Truthout.org at Flickr via Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License; Defense Counsel by Matt Freedman at Flickr, Attribution; bad jpg file in encrypted folder by Mike at Flickr via Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

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https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/56/The_Thinker%2C_Rodin.jpg/180px-The_Thinker%2C_Rodin.jpgI was thinking of incivility again. Maybe, it was prompted by reading Kathleen Geier’s out-of-both sides of her mouth musings about Joan Rivers. On the one hand, Geier thought Rivers “was pretty great” but on the other, called her “a monster.”

Or perhaps it was reading ‘s back-handed homage Joan Rivers Should’ve Always Punched Up” where Doyle reflected, “Joan Rivers worked very hard to seem like an asshole — which is the highest compliment I can offer her.” 

Sure Rivers often crossed lines of etiquette, taste and civility. Sure she was politically incorrect. But oh the rich irony of critiquing someone for incivility — uncivilly.

And leave it to lawyers. Following Rivers’ death, one lawyer was pretzeling out supposed “Life Lessons for Lawyers” from her life.

What is it about lawyer self-absorption? I doubt dentists, dog catchers or podiatrists waste time divining occupational lessons from pop culture phenomena. Just a couple of years ago, navel-gazing lawyers were conjuring up faux analogies to find ‘lessons’ from “The Hunger Games.”

Lawyer incivility . . . again.

Or perhaps my latest reveries on incivility might have stemmed from a recently reported he-said, she-said case where the U.S. magistrate’s memorandum and order started with the following admonition: “‘You’re an asshole, Dan'” is not how an attorney should address her adversary.” 

Another day and another court order documenting what trial lawyer William B. Smith terms “The downward spiral of incivility.”

Let there be rules.

Comedians like Joan Rivers, though, don’t have to comport themselves according to professional rules of conduct. Lawyers, on the other hand, are required to comply with baseline legal ethics and professional responsibility standards. Those rules set forth their obligations and prohibitions. But that doesn’t mean lawyers always follow them.

Businessmen having disagreement uidIn point of fact, lawyers aren’t usually successful at playing nice. After all, wasn’t it Horace in early B.C. who said “Lawyers are men who hire out their words and anger”? So I’ve posted often about . And notwithstanding the fatuous notion of ivory tower professors who assert “The Obligation of Lawyers to Heal Civic Culture,” that parade’s long passed . . . along with the rest of society’s punctured civility.

Not to say that window-dressed efforts don’t occasionally arise to futilely tamp down on incivility. This past May, for instance, the California Supreme Court adopted a Civility” Oath Rule. It now requires that the oath taken by every newly-minted California lawyer conclude with: “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.”  Yeah, that’ll do it.

Black and White Business 11Far better is the 7-point practical approach promoted by the above-mentioned lawyer Smith in his excellent ‘how-to’ on avoiding incivility. Smith’s “prevention formula” is terrific. It includes such sensible prescriptions as calling opposing counsel as a get-acquainted first step to establish goodwill and create “the tone of respect.” He also recommends having more face time with the other side, touching on something most of us learned a long time ago — it’s easier to be a jerk in writing than in person. Don’t just count to ten — but wait 24 hours to “avoid writing nasty emails and letters.” For the rest of Smith’s formula, see “How to Avoid the Downward Spiral of Incivility.”

Grappling golfers.

Then again, my latest introspection may have stemmed from last month’s  news about another golf course fight. As most of you know, I make an effort to play something that approximates golf.

Although the nation’s passion for golf is waning, it nevertheless remains popular enough as both a source of enjoyment and aggravation. For most who play, best to remember what wiser heads advise, “We aren’t good enough to get so mad.”

Better still is A.A. Milne’s explanation, “It is the best game in the world at which to be bad.” No wonder that another no-holds barred comedian, Lewis Black, was on the mark about golfers.

This latest fight involved two Pennsylvania golfers who went at it and put themselves in an emergency room. Their argument? It was allegedly over Rule 25, which concerns casual water on the golf course.

Thankfully, despite their aggressive focus on rules interpretation, far as I could tell, neither the 63-year old nor the 42-year old Pennsylvania legalistic brawler was a lawyer. It wouldn’t have surprised me, though, if they’d both been versed not only at golf course rage but at the boring practice of water law.

But just as civility among lawyers can’t be legislated, cantankerousness can’t be stamped out on the golf links. It’s part of the DNA of the so-called ‘gentleman’s game’ as much as it’s a part of the so-called ‘noble profession.’

Consequently, the mere promulgation of rules of golf with a prefatory “the spirit of the game,” hardly means golfers abide religiously with the precept that “All players should conduct themselves in a disciplined manner, demonstrating courtesy and sportsmanship at all times, irrespective of how competitive they may be.”

Yeah, that’ll do it.

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Photo Credits: The Thinker, Rodin, at Wikimedia Commons, AndrewHorne at the wikipedia project, public domain; Joan Rivers Benefit Concert, by Bob Jagendorf at Flickr via Creative Commons license requiring attribution; Two Award Winning Flickr Photographers Duke it Out by Okinawa Soba at Flickr Creative Commons via Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license; Bad golf cart driver (after 2 days of rain) by Julia Rubinic at Flickr via Creative commons license requiring attribution.

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professional man lost 2Some time ago, I posted about and how important that was, particularly during an economic downturn. Well now that things have supposedly picked up and are coming up rose petals, client selection remains as important as ever. It’s always the threshold consideration.

About 7 years ago, I became acquainted with the precepts of litigator and writer Dan Hull. I hadn’t thought of Hull in a long time. Nor had I given much thought to his “12 Rules of Client Service” or his first rule until the other day after I’d met with a new client for the first time.

I spent more time than initially anticipated with this client. And it was a good thing. I truly enjoyed our preliminary meeting and getting to know the client first — well before getting into details and diagnosis.

You have to like your client.

On the way back to my office, I thought of Hull’s blog “What About Clients?” It’s been around a long time. Last time I checked, the blog was still among the most popular on the Web.

Granted, he has a corporate client orientation. But all the same I strongly believed then and now that his client service rules are essential reading for lawyers young and old. They’re as timely today as when he posted them in 2005.

The first rule.

But of all Hull’s rules, the one that’s always resonated is his first one: “Represent only clients you like.” Probably it’s because long before I ever heard of Hull, it was the goal I’d written in my business plan — the one I wanted guiding my practice.

Was it a pipe dream? Is such representation even doable? The answer is yes — but it’s not easy. Sure under attorney ethics rules, there’s a helpful albeit qualified comment that says under Rule 6.2. “A lawyer ordinarily is not obliged to accept a client whose character or cause the lawyer regards as repugnant.”  See also Scott Laufenberg’s excellent essay, “Representing Repugnant Clients Every Lawyer’s Choice?”

So when I came across Hull’s blog in 2007, I got what he was saying. Years before, matters had also crystallized further after I’d attended a bankruptcy for the non-bankruptcy lawyer continuing education program. That program was supposedly for non-bankruptcy practitioners but almost all the attendees in the room were bankruptcy lawyers. It seemed everybody knew everybody else — like old home week. But what struck me that day wasn’t the course content.

https://i0.wp.com/www.rottenecards.com/ecards/Rottenecards_84464871_k4nh9wybb9.pngIt was that some of the lawyers in that room didn’t like their clients. These lawyers spent their break time loudly commiserating about their clients.

Lest anyone think I was casting aspersions on my colleagues in the bankruptcy bar, the answer is no. Regardless of practice area, we face the same challenges. I could’ve just as easily heard the same gripes at an employment lawyers conference or a criminal defense or family law program.

And it wasn’t like I’d been trying to overhear any conversations. Quite the opposite. I felt like the schoolboy in the confessional who covers his ears to not overhear a fellow sinner’s too loud admissions of sin in the confessional booth.

It didn’t matter if I was standing out of normal earshot or sitting several rows away. These lawyers spoke loud enough about their unlikable clients to have been overheard by the occupants in the next room. Then and there, I resolved all the more to do my best to avoid representing clients I didn’t like.

Ethics.

What I especially liked about Hull’s client service rules was that he placed them in an ethical and quality service-oriented framework. Lawyers owe their clients “some of the highest personal, professional and business duties imaginable,” he wrote. If you don’t like your client — fire him or her “as soon as you ethically and practically can.” And then there was the money quote, “You will not do good work very long for a client or customer you do not like.”

He sets a high bar. But always, there’s the reality check. When I meet new lawyers, many forced into solo practice — not by choice but by circumstance, I repeatedly find a disconcerting urgency to take on all comers. Facing crushing school loan debts and personal needs, there’s a sense of no boundaries. If a client’s paying, no legal work can be turned down. No matter the ethical duty of competence.

And as for wanting to like your clients, are you kidding? So long as a client has funds to pay for representation — what’s there not to like? Surely in hard-pressed economic situations, Hull’s first rule has to be out-of-step? I like to think not.

 

Admittedly, turning down a paying client even one that comes across like an acre of garlic isn’t easy when ‘baby needs new shoes.’ The cold truth is that faced with life necessities or payroll or rent, the first rule is often the first to go.

In those circumstances, doing what’s right is not only not easy but becomes a question of discretionary aspiration. It’s more longing than loftiness; more hunger than high-mindedness.

But perhaps a work-in-progress goal is still better than the alternative. The harder truth about lawyering is that our choices always catch up with us anyway. In the end, as the late Maya Angelou said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

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Photo Credits: Dreamers by piotr at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution;Day 26, by Luciano Belviso at Flickr via Creative Commons-license requiring attribution.

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Celia Cruz – “Reina De La Música Latina”

Early Saturday morning I was catching up on my reading while listening to “Queen of Latin Music” Celia Cruz, lawyer-turned-salsero Rubén Blades and soulful Sam Smith’s – “In The Lonely Hour.” I like mixing my music. Ditto my casual reading.

So my reading stack was pretty disconnected with magazines, news clippings, newspapers and digital items featuring book and movie reviews, history, sociopolitical commentaries, sports notes and an outrageous report about juvenile truants in court being jailed without assistance of counsel. (I’ll be blogging about that one later).

One item, though, also drew my interest. It concerned a just-released survey suggesting lawyers ought to be marketing with online review sites. More specifically, the report referred to “the online urban guide” Yelp as supposedly “the most commonly used site to search for attorney reviews online, with 58 percent of [the] respondents saying it is the first place they turn.” The study also claimed that for 83 percent of respondents, online reviews were the first step taken by would-be clients. Who knew?

Burritos not barristers.

What I do know is that I like Yelp for hunting burritos not barristers. Help me get a bagel, a beignet or some bouillabaisse. Or how about finding me a bowlful of cocido, pho or curry when I’m traveling. But lawyers?

I haven’t seen this study’s metrics, methodology or ‘motivation.’ So I’m skeptical.

And since anecdotally and experientially, I haven’t seen it happening, I’m having trouble — especially accepting the inference that all these consumer are allegedly posting reviews about lawyers, which in turn is helping other consumers find legal counsel.

While it’s true that consumers use the Internet to find legal services, consumers aren’t generating a whole lot of online reviews about lawyers. Maybe it’s because it’s not like going out for burgers and brews. Not many folks can afford to hire legal representation. In spite of the historic glut of lawyers, the high cost of legal services has nonetheless resulted in more and more litigants doing without.

So I don’t know who’s supposedly posting all those few and far-between reviews the study says the public’s relying on. Granted, as one marketing researcher at the University of Utah’s School of Business contends, perhaps you don’t need a lot of online buzz. It’s the quality of the online sentiment that’s more important than the quantity of the conversations when it comes to driving customers to your door. Dr. Shyam Gopinath and his research co-authors suggest “that, in our data, ‘what people say’ is more important than ‘how much people say.'”

Woman in orange sunglasses uid 1All the same, given the paucity of online word of mouth about lawyers, I doubt you’ll see a time where like those ‘Elite’ Yelp restaurant reviewers, people dissing or raving about their lawyers will be feted at parties and treated “like royalty.”

Online legal reviews.

According to “How Prospective Clients Use Online Legal Reviews,” the randomly sampled 385 adults in the U.S. generated “385 unique responses to each of nine questions” for a “total of 3,465 respondents.” Say what?

Map of USA with state names 2.svg

To the everyday Joe, 385 adults is an infinitesimal number when there are an estimated 243,419,206 adults in the U.S. The findings then, are a real leap when the sample represents .00015816336201507453% of 243,419,206. But since statisticians assert this is a sufficiently sizable sampling to make the survey valid, I’ll just have to choke down my incredulity.

Here were the key findings from Software Advice, a consulting firm which according to their website, “helps buyers choose the right software. As a trusted resource, our website offers detailed reviews, comparisons and research to assist organizations in finding products that best fit their current and future needs.”

“1. Yelp is the most popular and trusted website for legal reviews.

“2. The most important information to prospective clients is quality of service and years of legal experience.

“3. Seventy percent of prospective clients would travel further to see an attorney with better online reviews.”

I don’t have a handle on how many lawyers currently rely on web-based business referral and review sites like Avvo, Yelp or the stodgy old school, Martindale-Hubbell. Lord knows they’re out there trolling for lawyer business.

And to some extent, lawyers should pay attention to what’s said about them online. But it’s a touchy proposition, especially when a lawyer feels compelled to respond to a negative review posted by a former client. Unlike other business owners who sue reviewers, lawyers may find that option a no-win proposition.

woman giving thumbs up 3 L uidWhat reviews?

But as to my further thoughts about the survey, I’m hypothesizing not many lawyers are marketing through Yelp — not unless they’re also serving chowder with their counsel. Save for emerging social media savvy Millenials, lawyers as a class are rarely early adopters. If there’s gonna be a digital technology party, most will be late.

From my own admittedly unscientific Yelp search of “lawyers,” for example, in the Phoenix, AZ market, very few had any client reviews. Indeed, the Phoenix lawyer with the most reviews had 8. And even in the bigger metropolis of Los Angeles, CA, the “most reviewed” lawyer in Downtown Los Angeles garnered a mere 93 reviews. The “most reviewed” lawyer in San Francisco’s Civic Center had 53 reviews and in Cleveland, OH, of the Yelp lawyers listed, all were tied with a whopping one review each. One San Diego, CA firm had over 200 reviews — but the next two highest were at 47 and 34 reviews.

And unfortunately, among all those scant reviews, some were negative. When it comes to lawyers, I disagree with Brendan Behan that “All publicity is good, except an obituary notice.”

The Rules.

People 1857To be fair, not all lawyers are Luddites. Some are just risk-adverse. They may be reluctant to run afoul of ethical rules governing how they advertise. After all, client recommendations are analogous to testimonials and so lawyers can’t have clients violate or attempt to violate Ethical Rule 8.4 (a) by knowingly assisting their clients to say things they aren’t allowed to say — like making false or misleading communications about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services.

And then there’s that other burden that requires lawyers to monitor their social networks and blogs for reviews and recommendations that may need to be revised or deleted. In Virginia, for instance, “the lawyer cannot permit to remain on his LinkedIn page a client recommendation that says the lawyer is the “best personal injury lawyer in town” because it is a comparative statement that cannot be factually substantiated. Rule 7.1(a)(3).”

From my own sorry experiences, I’ve also developed my own ‘rules’ for finding restaurants not lawyers on Yelp. Unless I’m in the middle of Smallville, USA where you won’t find 100 residents let alone 100 reviewers, I don’t pick a restaurant with less than 100 reviews. This takes out the possibility the restaurateur may have tried gaming the system by having biased friends and family stack the deck with glowing reviews.

boy in coat and hat sticking tongue outReviews should also be recent. And hopefully, substantive — not just whining because the waiter didn’t make eye contact, smile enough or sympathize about your troubling hangnail. Last, I also don’t pick restaurants with less than 4 stars.

And yet despite my ‘rules,’ I’ve still been burned — more than once, especially in the bad dining town where I live.

Yet come to think about it, if my Yelp restaurant rules were ever applied to picking lawyers, consumers would find it near impossible to find one.

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Photo Credits: Celia Cruz, Reina De La Música Latina, by Tribes of the World at Flickr via Creative Commons-required attribution; I Heart Yelp by Ewen Roberts at Flickr via Creative Commons- required attribution; Map of USA with state names, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; 031207_16231.jpg 4 Jane, by

Luz at Flickr via Creative Commons-required attribution.

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