I’m not one to jump to conclusions. Honestly, whenever I heard people talk negatively about lawyers collectively, it always immediately put me off. After all, they’re all individuals so claiming they could ALL be bad is just intellectually shallow, right?
Ok, so I still believe they are individuals and of course there are good lawyers and bad lawyers just as there are good and bad engineers, salesman, businessmen, accountants, and brokers. In my short (and expensive) experience with lawyers, they seem to be in a league of their own, however. They seem to be held much less accountable than anyone else in the professional world for their actions. After all, when was the last time you heard of someone suing their lawyer for malpractice? Sure they get disbarred for committing some sort of felony and I really don’t have much issue with that… It’s more a lack of business professionalism that seems to permeate the law ranks. Let me give you a few examples of the most common unprofessional practices.
- They are not encouraged to serve the best interests of the customer. One of my recent blogs discussed encouraging the best performance by paying your team members based on achieving Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s). Well lawyers do that right? Don’t they have KPI targets for billable hours every week? In most cases, yes. Here’s the problem with that KPI. It’s not customer-focussed. If my job is to bill the customer the absolute maximum I can and spend the absolute maximum amount of time on each individual detail then how does that provide the best service for the customer? It’s the same as if you pay service technicians by the hour instead of by the job. A lot of automobile service departments, for instance, now bill by the job. They have a book of all of the possible repairs they can do on your car and they bill you a flat labor rate for each job. Now the technician may be new and take longer or a veteran and take less time, but either way you pay the flat rate. They then pay the better technicians more per hour than the neophytes. In a perfect world, just paying the technicians a percentage of the labor rate would help encourage better performance. Obviously you then wouldn’t pay them for any “call-backs” or cars that they couldn’t fix the first time. The result of that is a KPI to encourage efficiency and skill as well as serve the best interests of the customer (the job is done right the first time). Lawyers are encouraged to bill as much as they can which can lead to dragging out the process and billing you for revisions of their own mistakes (i.e. It appears that I’ve been billed for asking the lawyer to fix her own typos). How does that serve the customer?
- They are not paid for performance. If your lawyer loses your case or the contract she provides ends up not holding up, what do you do next? You pay her more to appeal the case or to defend the weak contract. In Pittsburgh we all know the Edgar Snyder mantra of “There’s no fee unless we get money for you!” Obviously that’s the exception and not the rule, however. The idea of billing for their own mistakes is akin to a business model where I write a completely custom software package for you and then when it’s all done and delivered, bill you to fix bugs you find. Now a lot of software contracts provide a cost for “testing and revisions”, however when that stage is done and the software is live, free updates to fix issues should be made available. We all get our regular free Windows updates, for instance, to fix all of those Microsoft bugs. Granted laws are always changing so a lawyer can’t predict that. However if they’re demanding $200, $400, or $800 an hour because they are so much more knowledgeable than you or I, then is it unreasonable for me to expect them to protect me in the current business climate? And if they miss something, shouldn’t that be on them?
- They have very little accountability. This manifests itself in 2 forms:
- They don’t have to “justify” their billing. This has definitely been quite expensive for me and for other people I know. In my instance I was billed for 24 minutes for “Talking with client” when my phone bill indicated I was on the phone for 15 minutes. I was billed 12 minutes for “reading email and forwarding to client.” An email that I had already received because the other lawyer had CCed it to me. Now here’s the worst part. It’s fully understandable that I’m not perfect and that my records could be incomplete. I freely admit that. However after pointing those discrepancies out, my lawyer accused me of personally attacking her and with 95% of the legal work done suggested we part company. What? Just tell me what you actually did or admit that a mistake was made. You’re human (I think) and most humans make mistakes at one point or another. There’s no shame in admitting that. OR just keep accurate notes on why you’re billing me 24 minutes for a 15 minute conversation.
- How do you learn if a lawyer you’re interested in sucks? Right now the primary method for finding a good lawyer is a recommendation from someone you know. In my case 1 lawyer recommended another lawyer who then recommended another lawyer. That should have been my first clue and at that point I probably should have asked her for references. That’s very common in most other industries so I imagine that’s warranted for lawyers, right? The benefit of references is obviously debatable since she’s not going to let me talk to someone who’s going to say she’s horrible. However, it has brightened my day to find out that there is finally a somewhat objective way to review lawyers. LawyerRatingz.com now provides a free online resource to review and rate lawyers. In the online world this is commonplace. Scam websites pop up all the time which makes sites like ResellerRatings.com invaluable and if promoted effectively I believe LawyerRatingz.com can provide the same valuable insights about shyster lawyers. 🙂
- They have the “power”. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest this may be the most frustrating issue when dealing with lawyers. In my personal experience, by the time I had the time to audit everything (something I really didn’t plan to do since I had no reason to not fully trust her) the billing was already approaching double the estimate and we she was 95% done with the work. It just didn’t make sense for me to drop her and try to find and educate another lawyer when closing on my business purchase was less than 2 weeks away. Admittedly, letting it get to that point was partially my fault. I just hate that I have to actually audit the records (and then get accused of “personally attacking” her because of it). I really didn’t have the 3 hours worth of time that it took me to match up all of the phone records, email records, and contract revisions. My experience is certainly not unique. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to admits the same challenge. When you’re working with limited time and funds, and everyone else says there aren’t any better lawyers anyway, what other reasonable option do you have besides sticking with your sub-par attorney?
This blog is getting a bit long, however I always like to offer solutions and not just problems so I’ll address a few of my ideas of possible solutions this week. Moreover, any experience where you learn something is not a failure. And as expensive as this has been I sure hope I’ve learned quite a lot that I can share.
Let me run one last thought by you, though. Do lawyers not realize that the world is shrinking? In 1985 if you had an issue with a lawyer and you felt compelled to let others know they were a shyster, then you were basically limited to the number of people you speak with. However this is 2008. We have this thing called the internet where, with a bit of savvy search engine optimization, you could write up a blog about a lawyer you were unhappy with for the entire world to see and easily find. Obviously this is true of every other business in the world. This powerful disclosure is forcing businesses in all industries to straighten up and it forces the businesses to, not only act ethically, but provide top level customer service. This open transfer of information is only going to continue and lawyers have to realize that acting unprofessionally is not a healthy method for sustained business success. This is true of every business. Attorneys are no different.
So what do you think? Am I being too harsh?
To your success, Bryan