Dancing With Lawyers Online

HOW LAWYERS THINK

Arrogance and Egotism

Arrogance grows in law school, where the future lawyers develop it as a defense against overbearing professors and unpleasant fellow-students. It flowers on the first job, when the junior associates find they’re still being treated shabbily. Timid customers keep feeding it.

Arrogance includes the desire to make other people feel inferior; the arrogant always need victims. An employee like that probably isn’t worth hiring.

Egotism is less common than arrogance, and sometimes less troublesome; in a competent human, egotism tends to be focused on the job, not the customers.

If your lawyer is a competent egotist, live with it. Just don’t let it grow on you.


Ballfield, the Wrong One

There is only one way to start a job: Find out what the customer wants. It means good listening, but it also means asking the right questions. Lawyers are famous for overrunning this base. They snap out the questions, scribble on a pad, and start telling you what you’re going to do.

The result is that three minutes into describing your problem, you may not recognize the problem anymore. Is the lawyer running around the wrong ballfield?

Customers who know exactly what they want can minimize this distraction, by immediately revealing the purpose of the visit.

Beginners may want to let the lawyer run a bit, and take notes. Then as he rushes to the conclusion and begins to end the conversation, look at your original notes (the situation as you saw it) and return to the beginning of the conversation.

When you have laid out both views of the situation, you can take them home and come to a decision.


Breeding Litigation

It happens. And it happens more often than it used to.

Many people assume that lawyers generate trouble just so they can charge for it. This isn’t necessarily so. The thought process doesn’t have to go that far. Bird dogs find birds; lawyers find problems. Beavers build endless dams; lawyers build endless contracts. Groundhogs dig holes; lawyers dig holes.

Lawyers can breed litigation whether they’re thinking of money or not. Don’t assume your lawyer is avoiding useless conflict just because he’s competent or honest.

Business Ability, Judgement, and Information

Business Ability

Not much. When lawyers are actually involved in some other type of business – and personally facing consequences – they make bad decisions. Blunders come in many forms: penny wise, pound foolish; tantrums; sensitivity with people who need firmness; arrogance with people who need diplomacy.

Basically, lawyers have little trade sense, and they don’t use the little they have. (They are frequently good with financial calculations. This is a useful skill – lawyers have kept many overeager customers out of bad deals. But calculating and finding opportunity in the calculations are not at all the same thing.)

Lawyers like to debate about their business ability, pointing out that they make a lot of money. The answer: so would ditch-diggers, if they had a guild system boosting prices to $150 an hour – and billed the customers separately for shovels and shoes. I’m disconcerted, but not surprised, that the debaters never seem to notice the lawyers who own most of the business ability – the ones who left law and opened other businesses. I’ve met lawyers who operate restaurants, ice cream parlor chains, and publishing houses. These former lawyers have points in common: they don’t think of themselves as lawyers anymore, and they seem to be generating more fun and money than they could in law.

Business Judgement

Yes and no. Since lawyers see a great deal of folly, they often have a good sense of what sort of transactions lead to trouble. Take note of any concrete warnings that come out of their experience with sour deals. (This isn’t just business. House sales, divorces, and estates can be very sour deals indeed.)

Unfortunately, lawyers don’t take an active interest in their customers; they never really learn about people. Between that and their lack of hands-on business experience, you can’t really expect them to give good advice on what you should do.

As business judgment goes, there are three levels. You’ll have to decide which level the lawyer is operating at. I’d reckon that:

  • One in 100 can create a business solution.
  • One in 50 can ask: "So have you got all the business questions worked out?" In other words, "You’re the business expert, I’m the legal expert. Tell me when it’s time to do my job." (A good lawyer will speak up when you’re about to cut your own throat – but also knows when to wait.)
  • The rest don’t have business judgment, but usually think they do.

It would be nice if you could just lay it all out on a lawyer’s table, and brainstorm the possibilities; an employee who looks at the big picture is generally an asset, whether it’s the vice-president or a mailroom clerk. This approach rarely works with lawyers. They usually can’t get their minds out of the legal rut long enough to understand the big picture – and they take your open approach as a request for guidance.

Furthermore, trying to educate them is a mighty expensive experiment, since they charge for time spent learning. Frequently you end up extracting the knowledge you need item by item, and assembling the big picture in your own mind.

Business Information

Lots. Lawyers are constantly seeing deals go down. True, they’re far from mind-readers, but they see the transactions: how much their customers are paying for office space, whether free parking usually comes with the deal, and what the typical lease period is. Unfortunately they don’t realize how valuable the knowledge is, preferring to think about what might happen legally, instead of what is actually happening in the real world.

The ones who know that they’re legal experts are usually better at giving you business facts than the ones who think they’re universal experts. The legal expert may neglect to offer the facts unless you ask him, but the universal expert often squirrels them away until he gets the chance to impress.


Customers - From the Lawyer’s Point of View

  • According to lawyers, customers:
  • Unload their stress on the lawyer, and then ignore the problem.
  • Don’t answer the lawyer’s letters.
  • Set unreasonable deadlines which cause the lawyer to work grueling overtime.
  • Regularly mistake their lawyer for a psychiatrist, or even a chauffeur. (No lawyers have given me the details, for which I’m grateful.)
  • Lose respect for the lawyer when the bill is too low – a $500 bill means this is a $500 lawyer; if the customer later has a $5,000 job, they’ll figure it’s too big for him, and go find a $5,000 lawyer.
  • Lose respect for lawyers who make things too simple.
  • Then there are the things lawyers believe all customers want:
  • Reassurance. "Hand-holding," as the lawyers say.
  • Guidance. Advice on how to run your life.
  • A lawyer who seems busy (hence in demand).
  • A lawyer who seems to devote energy to the job. This invariably turns up in customer satisfaction surveys: "He didn’t do enough work for the money!" It is an emotional need, not a rational one, rooted in the fact that humans hate to pay for information, but pay willingly for service. Lawyers are not the place to be paying for unnecessary service. They’re too expensive. Customers who want to be served should go to a restaurant. Focus on results, please.
  • Lots of copies in the mail.
  • Letters and bills on engraved stationery. Many customers save these pieces of engraved correspondence like little nuggets of gold.
  • An answering service instead of an answering machine, even though the customer may know perfectly well that the lawyer is a sole practitioner with no secretary.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth to both the complaints and the beliefs. If you want nothing but results, at a good price, you’re part of the minority. The majority is misusing lawyers, as well as letting the lawyers misuse them. A minority won’t change the paternalistic world-view of the legal establishment – but there are lawyers willing to make an exception to that official world-view, once a businesslike customer gets their attention. If the lawyer notices that you meet the criteria in WHAT LAWYERS RESPECT (tk), you’ll get a certain amount of attention anyway.


How Lawyers See You

Mostly, they don’t. Once a lawyer adds up your profile, based on the points in WHAT LAWYERS RESPECT (tk), the calculation is fairly well complete. If you’re headed for court, he’ll assess your potential as a witness. And if it looks like you’re going to cry or become violent, he’ll keep an eye on you.

This shouldn’t be a complete surprise. After all, to a shoe salesman, you’re a pair of feet and a wallet. It may be reasonable to expect more from a white-collar professional – but in the case of lawyers, don’t.

This isn’t all bad. How much do you want an employee to know about you?

Next: How Lawyers Behave

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