Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts About Lawyers and Legal Services

I forget how I came across Clark Kent's Lunchbox: Why I Hate Divorce Attorneys. With what I have been dealing with since mid-May (a disappearing secretary being the largest but not only problem), the following raised all sorts of issues in my mind:

On the recommendation of a close friend, I contacted an attorney who was touted as the best in area, having handled multi-million dollar settlements without ever losing a case. You can already guess this guy was going to be expensive, but because he was drinking buddies with my friend, I would get a cut rate. For the best attorney in Houston this is what I got:

* When they sent the original papers to my former spouse, they goofed on the address sending it 3 states in the other direction, and new papers had to be drawn, which would require more money, but they said I wouldn't be charged for it since it was their mistake
* Two months later the new papers were sent, but were still wrong resulting in petitioning the court to move back the trial date
* After numerous phone calls (at a cost of X hundred dollars per 15 minutes), I was told the new court date
* Third set of papers sent... 6 weeks later
* Bill sent which includes charges for all calls I made to them, every goof up in paperwork, the address screw up, and filing fees to adjust court dates... and no friends and family discount
* Called attorney's office several days before court date only to be told they had filed another continuance and pushed the date back. The new court date? One year after the day originally contacted the attorney.
* Received notice informing me their office needed another $X thousand dollars to keep them on retainer.
I have been trying to maintain a level of service here that was different and better than what I know others provide.  I know one popular firm locally does not communicate as quickly or as fully as I have done.  I find one similarity between the Houston lawyer and the local firm, and that is the issue of front.  They put on a better front.

I cleaned up most of the train wreck created by Mary's departure but not all.  It took a week of about 20 hour days to do that.  Still, there remain things undone and things to do.  I can say that they are being done.

I do want to say that not all attorney-client relationships work.  I have had things sour more quickly with client that I personally like than with those I do not.  I have heard other attorneys say similar things.  We are puzzled by this.  I do not know if we come to be seen less professional by liking certain clients and those client have less respect for us or if it is something else.

I have also seen lawyers who are quite competent at one sort of case have difficulties with a simpler sort of case.  Again, no rational explanation existed for the situation.  It happens just like a slump in baseball.

Not that I think that either scenario I just wrote about applies to this story from Houston.  What distinguishes my scenarios from the Houston scenario, is the lack of effort and anguish I detect from Houston.  The effort put into a case where the client is liked but then turns on the attorney creates the anguish.  Nothing stresses out a lawyer like not being able to get a handle on a case but not quite get it all lined up regardless of knowing the facts and the law.  The last case I can think of this happening to me was a support case, and I remain convinced after a long, long time that what I lacked was a handle on the client's understanding of what was going on.  (She had a very neat notebook containing all the pleadings, she asked pretty good questions about the case, and I assumed that she knew what was what.  Turned out she did not.  Also, it turned out that she wanted more than what the courts could give her.  She was unhappy with the outcome even though the court gave her what she was entitled to under the law).

One other thing really sets me off about the Houston law firm and that is its document production.  Proper intake procedures ought to be in place in a firm like that.  I have been using client questionnaires for years so that I get proper information (such as the opposing party's address and spelling of names).  I have automated document production on most of my work product so that it can be produced in a reasonable speed.  I am so very annoyed (and have been since the start of July) that I am getting things out in a few days that would take a day with staff.  I do not get paid for having a fancy office, I get paid for the work done and I keep that in mind.  My clients have no money to waste and neither do I.  Automating document production serves to save my clients and myself from poor document production.

(Which is not to say that all mistakes have been removed but I have cut down on the stupid ones.  The stupid ones occur whenever I forget my own rules and use search and replace for creating documents.) 

For the non-lawyers having read so far, understand this: 1) the attorney-client relationship is a partnership between you and your lawyer;  2) you deserve good communications with your lawyer not only about what is going on with your case but what your case is about; and 3) if it is not working you need to get an explanation of why it is not.

(I freely admit that I have been troubled by returning phone calls as promptly as I ought to this past month and a half).

As for any lawyers who have read this far, this kind of lawyering affects all us and we need to explain and show the general public how this is not good lawyering.  If you think we can merely blow this as an aberration, read the comments to the post.  People think this is typical for lawyers.  They have no understanding of what we actually do.  Which I put down to our making a mystery of the legal process based on the belief that an ignorant client is one who willingly pays any fee - that never really worked and has less chance of survival in the Internet Age.

I wrote a comment to Why I Hate Divorce Attorneys and here is the writer's response:

R_mattocks That would've been logical if I was returning a defective toaster to WalMart, but there's papers that has to be filed with court taking one attorney off and more papers adding the new one. That takes time & money.

I would still have to pay another retainer fee with a new attorney and then get them up to speed on the state of the case. More time.

He was recommended by a close, close friend and when the two of would talk, he'd ask how things were going. When I told him, he said he'd relay my complaints since he and the attorney were drinking buddies. And I did complain to the attorney about his staff. Nothing.

Being unemployed didn't give me the financial leverage to pull up stakes, & the money I did have needed to go to the kids or the other attorney would've used not making payment against me.

Yes, I could've fired him earlier, but it would've cost me more money to get another attorney, and would've dragged the process out longer which was a financial burden for my ex, who lost her job several months after I did.

Strategically, who wins and who loses if I had "thought" to get another attorney? Me-more in debt. My Ex-more in debt. My kids-both parents are paying for two (or three) attorneys instead of school supplies and clothes. The only winners - attorneys.

And besides all that I couldn't find the receipt when I tried to return my defective attorney to the customer service counter.

Believe me, the divorce system is flawed - mainly because of the dirt-bag dads who try shirk their obligations. As a by-product of the system, there are an army of attorney's profiting off it. I'll take anyone on that wants to challenge me on that, because along with not putting thought into another attorney, I put my journalistic skills to use and got an education (and not from Law & Order).
As a post script, to be fair, my ex's attorney was the exact opposite. he didn't exploit the opportunity and educated me on the things my attorney should've. In the end, he didn't work for my wife so much as he worked for a realistic solution in the best interest of our kids given the circumstances.
The original writer understood correctly that time is needed to prepare.  What he may not realize that the complexity of the facts dictate how much time it takes to get prepared and that his description of the case makes me think the facts were not so complicated.  It would have been possible for another lawyer to take over the case.

The original writer hits the nail on the head about costs.  Again, asking about might have given him some surprising answers but with the caveat that more complex the case the greater the fees.  Not all lawyers charge on an hourly rate but charge flat fees (which is very more common in my area of Indiana - another reason to be wary of those saying they know what lawyers cost as geography changes everything).  Some do what I have started to do and unbundle their services. (Go here for why I am offering this type of service).   But you got to ask before you can learn these things.

Think about that my fellow lawyers.  I think we can all pick apart some of the writer's errors about cost.  We can do that because we know what the costs might actually be - something denied the writer.  Pay attention to the more important points about cost and perception of the services provided (or not provided) and to how the opposing attorney behaved.

I think the writer was lucky it was not a complicated matter, that opposing counsel took a collaborative approach, and that the judge dealt well with a pro se party.

What I have no idea about is how to get the general public to learn what we do, and how the family system of the different states actually work.

Remember, if you want more information about retaining me for a case, please give me a call at 765-641-7906.

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