Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lawyers are Scary (Not Really):
Why We Don't Like to Hire Them

"Environmental Law Practice Guide"
Books like these take all the fun out of feeling good
about simply recycling. Creative-commons licensed photo
by user umjanedoan.
I used to work for lawyers. During my last job search in the legal profession, I had a third interview for a job I semi-wanted. An attorney that I knew wanted to hire the other candidate asked me, "We sometimes get stressed and yell. How do you handle that?" I replied honestly, "I usually yell back." I didn't get the job, but it wasn't a surprise. Like I said, the recruiter already told me this particular attorney disliked me. Five years before, that knowledge would have been devastating. At the time, I was at a career crossroads, and interviewing for this job was one piece in finding my path.

The only reason I had enough nerve to honestly say that I would yell back was that I worked on a case a few years before with an attorney in NYC who said, "I need to let you know that as things get going, I sometimes yell." He went on to say something about it being a bad habit brought on by stress. I shrugged it off and said, "Then I guess you need to know that I sometimes yell back." The attorney chortled and we got along great. I remember nothing about the case except that conversation.

I gained a lot of confidence working for lawyers, so I understand their work.

The truth is that people do not like to hire lawyers or doctors. The main reason is that the billing is ambiguous and expensive. Soon I’ll tackle a work-around for the ambiguous billing issue, but this post is going to focus on the other reasons people do not like to hire lawyers.

First, the Internet makes us think we really don’t need a lawyer. 
Need a will? Just download one and fill in your own information. Lawyers are expensive, and so why pay all that money when it’s possible to DIY?

I just googled, “I need a will,” and got 4.6 million hits. The first one says, “Make a will online free.” You just fill in your info and a will should spit out of your printer. The last bullet point is the catch, however. It says, “Have your will evaluated by a local attorney.” And that, my friends, will probably cost as much as having the local attorney go through the entire process in the first place. To do this job right, the attorney will need to ask you questions and spend as much time considering what estate planning documents you need as if starting from scratch.

Second, we have all heard the one where the lawyers rack up the billable hours doing nothing.
Oh, you haven’t? It goes something like this (thank you,
Upon arriving at heaven the lawyer protested it was to early for him to die, because he was only 32 years old and there must be some mistake. 
The angel listened and agreed that perhaps there was some mistake and promised to scrutinize the allegation. 
After a while the angel replied and said “I’m sorry sir but I am afraid there was no mistake." 
“We calculated your age by how many hours you billed your clients, and you are at least 96 years old.”
So why hire a lawyer who’s going to do nothing and bill us anyway. Oh you know you have a favorite lawyer joke.

And anyway, third, even if I’m skeptical of “free” legal help, I can do-it-myself kits are different, right?*
Late night TV sells a DIY kits! Do you need a patent? A patent can cost $10K. Why not buy a kit? Because you can actually just get one for free! Search “inventor kit” and several offers will appear.

But here’s the proverb that might hit too close to home if you’re a DIY-er for your legal services: The person who represents his or herself has a fool for a client. Almost always.

The thing about DIY legal work is that we must know where to draw the line. Oh, sure, I’ve downloaded some documents. I’m the mom who sends her kid to an overnight with the grandparents with a medical release form signed and ready for the ER.

Fourth, have you seen how lawyers dress? 
Who wears clothes like that anymore? I saw a female attorney get dialed down a notch in federal court for wearing a slightly stylish--albeit still conservative suit. I think the judge's complaint had to do with the color. Another day, a judge asked a paralegal wearing a blouse if she owned a jacket and suggested she wear it next time.  So, lawyers dress conservatively and keep a blazer on the back of their office doors just in case.

Think of the formal court dress sometimes worn in England and Wales. Today’s lawyers are starting to look a little bizarre in their suits day in and day out. If you have to wear cloths like that, you spend some money on them so that they last and look impressive. I used to dress like that in my paralegal days. And only as I transitioned out of that wardrobe did I realize how bizarre it must have seemed to much of the rest of the world.

The problem is that when clients see lawyers dressed like this, they feel intimidated in their business casual Calvin Kleins and Polo shirt.

Fifth, law is mostly common sense anyway.
In grad school, I took a business law class taught by an attorney who said to read our textbook very closely because we would encounter a lot of information that seemed like common sense. For example, when reading the real estate section, we were likely to think, “I bought a house last year. I understand real estate law.” Let me just say that what we know about real estate law after buying a house fills approximately the first 10 minutes of a law school seminar in real estate law. It may appear straightforward, but someone went to great pains to make sure it’s complex.

Last, TV really makes lawyers look nearly criminal. 
On a rerun of Burn Notice, Michael Weston explained that law firms were great for masking illegal activity. What if the firm you hire has ties to the Russian mob and your personal information is obtained and used for evil plots against humanity. Okay, maybe I should back off Burn Notice reruns.

The truth is that lawyers are not around to handle just the bad stuff. They also help with routine business and personal matters. We all need to just get over whatever makes us nervous and start making good decisions regarding seeking legal advice. Even after working for attorneys, I still get slow when it comes to making the phone call: Who do I call? Is this the best choice? How much will this cost? Today, I want us all to promise to stop getting in our own way and make a list of the matters we need to address. Taxes? Estate planning? Real estate transactions? We will tackle these items one at a time.

Next time, I’ll discuss the real fear factor: ambiguous billing.

*I've never actually evaluated a DIY inventor's kit, so it may rock, but I'll take my chances with a patent agent or attorney that I choose and hire and that's only if I ever invent anything cool enough to patent. Unfortunately, someone already invented the invisible house. And even more unfortunately, the idea has been disclosed without filing proper paperwork with the USPTO. I suppose if the inventor had only consulted a DIY kit...I'm kidding! Just as is Bruce Brodie of Saddletrout Studios, the artist behind the invisible house.

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