Dancing with Lawyers cover shot

How Lawyers Behave

Advisor To the Universe

Lawyers believe they are equipped to offer advice to anyone. This belief is founded on several notions: that they are more intelligent than the rest of us; that law is civilization's supreme system of order; and that "learning to think like a lawyer" has equipped them with the finest possible tools to analyze human affairs, both big and small.

The belief is ill-proven, because until they've given up thinking like lawyers, they don't do well in other fields (with the unfortunate exception of politics).

Aside from the peculiar belief that law describes reality, lawyers are simply not well-rounded people. They work long hours, and they spend their limited free time thinking about law. As a consequence, their expertise is in law, and only in law. Beyond that their knowledge consists of what the customers have told them in their office, but this is disorganized data; they rarely think it out.

For business advice, try friends in business; for personal advice, try your grandmother.

Efficiency, Lack of

Efficiency is to some extent a process of cooperation, even among the most competitive people. Law school teaches the adversary system (explained in ADVERSARY SYSTEM, tk).

Despite that, lawyers might have learned efficiency in law school. They didn't. Law schools don't teach project management, bookkeeping, computer skills ... in fact, they don't teach a single course related to productivity, and very few aimed at results for the customer. So the lawyers get their business know-how out of personnel manuals, which instruct them in the art of managing legal secretaries.

End result: inefficiency.

Many lawyers do work long and hard, but:

Long hours aren't the same as efficiency.

Hard work isn't the same as efficiency.

And profit for the law firm definitely isn't the same as efficiency.

Fears of Lawyers

Lawyers fear:

Loss of the client. The smallest of their fears. (Lawyers tell me it's the biggest fear; I assure you it's not.)

Loss of control (over the situation, you, their secretary, and anything else that comes to mind). Probably more than you do.

Damage to their ego (including loss of face, and damage to their professional reputation). Probably much more than you do.

Lawsuits. The public doesn't win that often, but even lawyers find lawsuits a burden.

Disbarment. A very unlikely event, but the fear tends to lurk in the backs of their minds. A license is critical to their self-image. Without it they are no better than their customers.

Don't be misled by newspaper images of the high priests of law, the silver-haired establishment lawyers with political connections and hand-made suits. Where these types may – or may not – be bulletproof, a state bar association could theoretically go after a garden-variety lawyer – possibly all the way to disbarment.

Disbarment lies close to death. Without engineering credentials, you can still engineer; without a law license, the closest you can come is working as an economy lawyer in a back room of some giant corporation.

There are very few lawyers who haven't given serious thought to disbarment. Even lawyers on the way to another career don't want to be bounced.

Hysteria, Climate of

Creating hysteria gives lawyers a sense of importance – makes them feel like the eye of the hurricane, the hub of the wheel. It may not be done consciously, but if they make you agitated, they will indeed become the center of things.

You may not be able to keep a lawyer from his own hysteria, but at least don't let him agitate you, especially at the beginning (when you're deciding what needs doing). Walk the conversation back to your original purpose. It might cost more, but if you don't get the original questions answered, you've probably paid for nothing. If you want the lawyer to actually carry out a job, it's even more important to get him back on track.

Lawyers claim that customers are hysterical. That happens too. A common scenario: the lawyer starts out composed and becomes hysterical as the job approaches deadlines; the customer is hysterical on first contact and calms down with the notion that something is being done.

(Hysteria has another function: it drives lawyers to greater effort. This may even reduce a customer's bill; a twenty-hour job can get done in ten. I'm not comfortable with this method of bill reduction.)


Lawyers as Customers or Business Partners

Does this belong in a book on dancing with lawyers? Yes. Quite a few customers have hired a lawyer and ended up with that lawyer as one of their customers or partners.

Lawyers as Customers

Lawyers can definitely be good customers. They're usually too busy to pester you, they charge their own customers a lot (which ought to mean they have money), and sometimes they're delighted to be talking to someone who's neither a lawyer nor a client.

They have some difficulties, however – which can be managed when you know what to expect.

They Assume They're Smarter Than You
This leads to a general attitude of dissatisfaction, as though your product is never quite right – but it isn't a problem as long as they don't have time to pester you. Ignore it.

They Get Testy, Sometimes Rude
Ignore it. If you have employees, tell them to ignore bad manners and refer the lawyer back to you.

They Look For Disagreements
It's their nature. It doesn't necessarily mean they intend to cheat you, but it can lead to dissatisfaction or re-negotiation.

Stop it before it happens. Treat difficult lawyers as you would any difficult customer: take them through the job step by step, spell it out, make them repeat what you said, root out any misunderstandings. Make conversation notes or send letters of understanding if you're still concerned. If necessary sell them your very best product, so they won't have any quality points to complain about later.

Those first three problems apply whether a lawyer is buying something for his personal use or for his business.

The next problem tends to affect you only if you're providing something for a lawyer's business. But be careful with a big personal job, especially when working on his house.

Poor Cash Flow
Lawyers often have poor cash flow, either from mismanaging their money or from taking too many cases on contingency. When businesses run short of cash, they give priority to those who can put them out of business. Where do you fit in?

Third-Party Payment (strictly a business-to-business problem)
Lawyers see themselves as separate from the hustle and bustle of vulgar business. A lawyer will ask another business to provide a service – such as an estate appraisal – and when that business sends the bill, the lawyer tells them that they'll be paid directly by the client; or when the client pays the legal bill; or when the court authorizes the expense; or when the client succeeds in collecting a judgment.

When you persist they get snotty. Then they start ducking your phone calls.

These last two difficulties have given lawyers a reputation as deadbeats. A surprising number of them write rubber checks. (If you doubt this, ask a few bank tellers.) Make sure you get paid; collecting a deposit or payment in advance might be appropriate.

Lawyers as Partners

Lawyers are good silent partners, at least initially. They're busy with their own work, and they respect your status as an expert.

Then they get a taste of the action. Hands on. For the first time they're not working as a consultant.

At about the same time, they realize they can understand the words you're using. That wouldn't be a problem, but for one thing – since the legal business is largely jargon, they assume jargon is also a main pillar of your business. To them this means they now understand your business.

At this point your credibility shrinks; you're no longer an expert. And the lawyer reckons he can handle the business as well as you can. (Better, actually, because he's a lawyer.)

You should think long and hard before going partners with anyone. Think a bit more if the prospective partner is a lawyer.

Ask yourself: Is there any danger he'll find enough time to help me run the business?


There are three types of lawyer-to-lawyer interactions which have a life all of their own (they're not necessarily related to getting the job done):

Fighting, whether in court or over contracts. Can lead to expense without results.

Socializing, whether by telephone or letter or memo or conference. Can lead to expense without results.

Less obvious is the routine squabbling: pulling rank, intimidation, trampling junior associates with partner power, needling each other in letters, deliberately leaving key phrases out of letters of agreement, and making unreasonable contract demands – buried in the second page.

It's mildly entertaining to hand someone else's lawyer a letter or contract (from your own lawyer) which contains a hidden insult, such as a flagrant loophole in your favor. The receiving lawyer will bounce around in his chair. He knows he's been insulted – and doesn't want a customer to know it. Which sets him to grumbling about "... not proper ... isn't the right form ... doesn't your lawyer know that ..."

Mild entertainment ought to be the limit. It's OK to let the troops have fun. Some squabbling can be ignored, especially when your lawyer has more prestige (if your lawyer has less prestige, you'll have to break it up much sooner). In any case don't let them go so far it interferes with the job; fun has to stop before the feuding stage, because it can lead to – expense without results.

Lies by Lawyers (to their own customers*)

Lawyers lie a lot more than farmers, but less than used car salesmen; in short, you've heard worse. As a customer you should concentrate on when and where the lies occur.

* Customers have been content to let their lawyers lie for them for most of the 2,000 years since lawyers first offered the service. This agreement between customers and lawyers has been so fundamental that it can hardly be called a problem. More like an area of high customer satisfaction.

At the Beginning of a Job
Exaggerating expertise. Slightly more common than in other service businesses. "Sure, we do that," followed by mumbo-jumbo when you try to find out just how often they do that. This is a clear warning of missing know-how, because there definitely are lawyers who'll say "That's all I do," or "I don't do that."

Promising unrealistic results is closely linked to exaggerating expertise.

Both these habits are more common in family law, personal injury, worker's compensation, tenant law, drunk driving, and immigration. Not surprisingly, these are specialties that typically serve poor or inexperienced customers.

Making the job sound harder than it is. Happens to rich and poor alike – sometimes to impress the customer, sometimes in preparation for a big bill. Of course, a lawyer who exaggerates the difficulty too much will have to write a big bill – or the customer will get suspicious about the difficulty.

During a Job
Mistakes aren't a major source of lies. Why would they be? The customers usually don't spot the mistakes. Either they're camouflaged by the normal jargon and mumbo-jumbo of the legal trade, or the lawyers correct them before the ship sinks.

Delays. This area requires heavy doses of deception, because background camouflage won't work. Customers are working off the same calendar as the lawyers. But since customers rarely demand a hard timetable and task list – in advance – the lawyer can usually revise history to suit his needs.

If the job is headed for court, and the customer has a schedule, revision becomes riskier, because the customer may compare the court papers against the calendar, or even drive down to the courthouse and look up the actual filing dates.

At the End
Billing is where 70% or 80% of the lies are found. By general business standards this is an unusual concentration. It's also to be expected. Lawyers are charging too much. The more a business overcharges, the more it has to lie at billing time.


It's a fairly common notion that lawyers love showing off in the courtroom. There are three more things to know:

The litigator (civil trial lawyer) is actually a subspecies. Many lawyers never go to court and don't want to.

There's no common mold to a litigator. Though most are visibly arrogant, many are introverts (or also introverts).

There's no certainty of how he'll act in the courtroom; the meekest lawyer can undergo a Jekyll and Hyde

Litigators are the most dynamic and abrasive subspecies in the legal trade. This isn't like dealing with a tax lawyer, where you have to get him to stop saying, "Well, that's a gray area."

Their drive is usually an asset. It can become a liability when you let them fly beyond radio range. You want to know what they're doing and why they're doing it (once in the courtroom it will be too late). Some customers recommend a choke collar.

The abrasiveness is often useful when dealing with underlings (that includes most bureaucrats). It can become a liability if they pointlessly abrade the wrong people. So keep an eye on them.

Love Affairs Usually End Sometime

A fast, strange love affair is a very common working model for the customer-lawyer relationship. Fast, because it might last only one date, though two or three is more common. Strange, because you're there to do business, or should be – and the lawyer isn't in love with you, but with his client list.

In this scenario, the first date is a smashing success. The job gets done, and all the loose ends are tied up. (Lawyers are fond of tying up loose ends, when they can get over the hump of doing the job.)

The second date seems to drag a bit, but it gets done.

The third date seems to have trouble getting off the ground. Lawyer's out. Doesn't return your phone calls with that old enthusiasm. Can't seem to synchronize schedules.

It's over.

Sure, you can persist, and push this job through. If the lawyer is particularly competent, it may be worth it – because quality often returns after a couple more jobs.

Like a love affair, you may never know why it ended. You may not accept it at first. But in hindsight, you know when it ended. The glance that wasn't warm, the phone call that wasn't returned. It comes to the same thing; the thrill is gone.


Procrastination is taught in law school. The professors let the students know that finishing assignments in the eleventh hour is inevitable, given the majestic complexity of the law. "Inevitable" quickly comes to mean "acceptable."

Ten years later these students are down at the courthouse, telling the judge, "... it's not my fault, can I get an extension on that filing?"

You aren't getting paid to revamp your lawyer's efficiency. But you do want to know things are getting done on time. So get the hard dates, make a timetable, and keep the lawyer on it.

Keep yourself on the timetable too. Legal work is as boring as it is frustrating.

Procrastination fits in nicely with HYSTERIA (p.tk) and CRISIS MANAGEMENT (p.tk). It is minimized by PROJECT MANAGEMENT (p.tk).

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