Don’t Use A Shadow Lawyer

When you hire a lawyer, give them a chance to show you what they can do for you. It can be tempting to get a second opinion for every decision they make or recommendation they give, especially if you know someone who practices in the relevant area and can give you advice for free. But in my experience it often does more harm than good to ask your sister-in-law, uncle, college roommate, or whatever lawyer you happen to know to shadow the lawyer you are paying. There are times where it makes sense to seek a second opinion, but lawyers and clients work best when they are forced to communicate with each other and address the bumps in the road that arise.

When you run every decision your attorney makes by your friend, you undermine trust and impair the normal development of the attorney-client relationship. This is especially true if the lawyer you are paying knows or finds out that you are using a shadow. They correctly conclude that you don’t trust them, and too often that causes them to work less hard than they otherwise would. I’ve spoken to several lawyers who basically take the position that clients who use shadows from the beginning of a relationship are the kind of clients that should be avoided.

And you should generally avoid using a shadow lawyer even if you don’t disclose that fact to the lawyer you are paying. It’s the functional equivalent of having a girlfriend or boyfriend on the side. This isn’t to say that I think using a shadow lawyer is immoral or that it somehow breaks a promise to the lawyer to be exclusive with them. Using a shadow lawyer, however, means that your commitment to the lawyer is diminished. And that tends to negatively impact the results you and your lawyer can achieve together.

If you are having series concerns with your lawyer’s performance, discuss them with the lawyer. And if you remain dissatisfied, and the issue is significantly important to you, consider replacing that lawyer outright. That is better alternative to using a shadow lawyer. Who after all wants to be constantly second guessed? Would you want to be? Neither does your lawyer.

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Docstoc for free legal documents

If you are looking to save money on the drafting of legal documents, you should check out docstoc.com

Docstoc allows you to search and download thousands of legal, financial, real estate and related documents. Many of these documents are free.

There is a right way and wrong way to use legal documents you find on Docstoc. The wrong way is simply to copy a document you find and use it wholesale. This is a somewhat risky but defensible strategy if the document in question is from your state and deals with a minor matter. But for a vast majority of legal issues, it’s reckless to just cut and paste a document you see on online. That would be like trying to transplant someone else’s organs with the help of medical experts.

Docstoc can, however, help you save time and money when dealing with your lawyer. It is generally cheaper for you to have lawyers review documents than draft them in the first instance. Thus, the right way to use Docstoc is to use the documents that you download as a starting point for the legal advice you are seeking. Rather than paying your lawyer to draft contract language, have them focus on higher level tasks, such as evaluating whether a particular document could be amended to better fit your strategic goals.

A recent conversation I had with the owner of a web design firm provides a good example. His standard contract provides for flat fee payments. He doesn’t have a version of his contract that sets forth hourly rates. His lawyer has expressed a willingness to draft such an agreement, but the web designer hasn’t gotten around to it yet. A search for “web design contracts” on Docstoc revealed approximately a dozen different contracts. I suggested that the web designer review these contracts and find the contract language that seems to best address his issue–charging hourly rates. Given that this is likley to be a recurring issue for the design company, and that each contract is worth thousands of dollars, this is too important an issue to warrant the cut-and-paste approach. But the web designer and you can make the process of working with your lawyer more effective if you present sample language for your lawyer to review.

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California Client Security Fund

If a California lawyer has cheated you or acted dishonestly, you may be able to get some of your money back.

California in 1972 established a Client Security Fund. In a typical year it pays victims of dishonest California lawyers between $2 million and $ 4 million.

There are important restrictions. You have to show that you were cheated, not just that you were dissatisfied with your lawyer’s performance or that the lawyer committed malpractice. It generally has to involve something like actual theft or taking your fees and then doing essentially no work. The money that you are trying to recover must have been received by the lawyer. In addition, you have to file a disciplinary complaint with the State Bar of California before you are eligible for any compensation. if the lawyer is disciplined and also found to have been dishonest, you then may be eligible to receive some money. Awards are limited to $50,000. The California Client Security Fund is in some sense a payor of last resort. Generally speaking the State Bar seeks reimbursement as part of the disciplinary process. The Fund is designed to help victims of attorney fraud and dishonesty where the lawyer lacks the resources to pay back the people he or she has harmed.

The California Client Security Fund, which in other states is sometimes referred to a Client Recovery Fund, is hardly a panacea. It takes approximately a year for eligible people to receive any funds. It is, however, better than nothing. In a typical year about 700-800 people receive some kind of payment from the Fund. In a state with more than 150,000 lawyers, that is a very low number. I suspect that few people know about the Fund. You can find out more information about the California Client Security Fund, including downloading an application for payment, by clicking here.

If you are wondering where the money in the Client Security Fund, comes from, it’s not from taxes. California lawyers contribute to the Fund as part of their professional dues. It’s one of the things that lawyers do that makes them professionals rather than just business owners. Please keep the Client Security Fund in mind the next time you hear someone bad mouth all lawyers.

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Why Lawyers Are Assholes

When people complain that they don’t like the lawyer on the other side of a law suit or negotiating table, it often shows that they, the person complaining, doesn’t know or fully appreciate what lawyers do.

To fully understand this, you need to know what we often mean we say that someone is nice. Being nice has many dimensions but one of them is being forgiving; it’s giving someone some slack. It’s the driver who lets you cut in front of them in line. It’s the clerk at the store who gives you a free sample even though they aren’t supposed to. It’s the police officer who gives you a warning instead of a speeding ticket. It’s the teacher who allowed you turn in your homework one day late. In many aspects of our daily lives we expect to receive a certain amount of leeway. That’s why people who don’t give you that margin of error are often considered assholes. It’s the police officer who writes us a parking ticket even though the meter expired just a minute ago.

There are, of course, attorneys who aren’t the nicest of people. They are abrasive and difficult in many circumstances. But in my experience, most lawyers aren’t like that. But lawyers are often brought into situations where their role is not to give you slack. Someone has decided–usually the client–that this particular issue is sufficiently important to justify precision and attention to every last little detail. It’s the lawyer who writes the cancellation notice on the very last day the contract can be terminated. It’s the lawyer who insists that the contract include a particular clause written in a specific way.

Lawyers tend to be involved in situations where cutting someone slack may not be in the interest of their client. That more than anything is why lawyers are assholes. And when people complain about that, especially if you are on the other side of the table from their client, you are often giving that lawyer a compliment. So keep your complaints to yourself or vent to your lawyer about how big an asshole opposing counsel is. Better yet, understand that it’s just part and parcel of the dynamics of being involved in a situation where lawyers are also involved.

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Money Saving Tips When Your Lawyer Charges $425 an Hour

What do you do when your lawyer is charging you $425 an hour?  That’s more than seven dollars a minute or roughly what you would pay 58 minimum-wage workers for an hour of their time.

For much of my working life I have been on the receiving end of this transaction.  I was largely walled off from its real impact because I worked for large law firms where the accounting department handled the invoices and I rarely had to talk to clients directly about their bill.  Now I’m in the unusual position of paying for a lawyer’s time. What I’m about to write is not an indictment of or a reflection on the specific lawyer involved.  But in a word, paying someone $7 a minute is shocking.

So here are three money-saving tips when you are meeting your lawyer and they are charging you hundreds of dollars an hour.

First, find out the increment at which a lawyer bills.  There can be a big bottom-line difference between a lawyer who charges in quarter-hour segments and one who charges in ten or six-minute segments. When the smallest increment of time is 15 minutes, the minimum itemized amount is more than $100.  Thus, everything the lawyer does at a rate of $425 an hour costs you at least $106.25.  That’s the downside of quarter-hour billing. By contrast, in this example the minimum charge for a lawyer keeping time in tenths of hours is $42.50.  I don’t believe that quarter-hour billing is inherently unethical for lawyers, although some courts have so ruled in specific circumstances.  Moreover, there is no guarantee that it will be more efficient for you to work with a lawyer who charges in smaller increments. It depends on how much they accomplish with their time.  All things being equal, however, I prefer working with lawyers who charge in something other than quarter-hour increments.

Second, and more importantly, it’s essential that you eliminate or delegate non-essential activities.  I could pay the lawyer’s paralegal $175 to prepare some documents.  That’s certainly cheaper than having the lawyer do that work.  Better yet, figure out if you can do the work yourself.  That’s what I’m doing.  This lawyer was selected in part because of her willingness to let me prepare some of the forms and have her staff review them.  I know that many of you are not in the position I am and therefore filling out your own forms may be a less attractive option.  But even if you are not inclined to fill out your own forms or, for example, to provide your own documents in response to discovery requests in litigation, you may be able to find someone with some legal experience to help you.  This isn’t a substitute for working with your lawyer; it is, however, a way to reduce the costs of some of the more labor-intensive and routine aspects of working within our legal system.

Third, and this is the most difficult strategy for me to carry out, you have to throw out some of the accepted rules of social interaction. You won’t be surprised to know that I can be chatty.  But that’s not a smart strategy when paying $7 a minute.  Don’t be rude. But be firm, precise, and even ruthless about how you spend the time with your lawyer. Let them know that you are all about taking care of the business at hand. Don’t spend your time listening to war stories, or sharing funny anecdotes.  Prepare a written agenda.  I’m planning to bring an alarm or egg timer to my next meeting.  I especially like the idea of turning over an egg timer every ten minutes. It’s a handy visual refrence point for you, your lawyer, or anyone else attending that meeting.

I’ll let you know how this egg-timer strategy pans out.

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Legalese Translator What Does ADR Mean

Lawyers love acronyms. When they talk among themselves they can say things like, “When it comes to ADR, do you prefer AAA or JAMS?”

I know — clear as mud.

Let’s break this down one acronym at a time.

ADR stands for alternate dispute resolution. You might be wondering an alternative to what. It’s an alternative to traditional lawsuits. Specifically, any system for resolving disputes that is different than a civil, non-criminal, lawsuit. That’s what ADR refers to–it specifically includes arbitration, mediation and its variations.

AAA and JAMS are two organizations that provide alternate dispute resolution services. The AAA is the American Arbitration Association and JAMS is one of its competitors. JAMS was originally an acronym for Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, Inc., but now is officially known as JAMS.

These alternate dispute systems are supposed to be faster than traditional lawsuits. You see lots of agreements between businesses that provide that disputes will be resolved by some form of ADR.

There is a fair amount of controversy about whether these systems are in fact a better alternative. I know lawyers who strongly believe that they are not, and in fact are more time consuming and expensive than traditional lawsuits. I will explore this topic in future posts, but at least you now know that ADR means alternate dispute resolution.

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Law School Applications Decline 11 Percent in 2011

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 10.21.06 AMAre college students finally beginning to understand that going to law school is often a dubious financial decision?

According to a recent article in theAmerican Bar Association Journal, the answer is yes.

Even though college graduates have traditionally responded to economic recessions by increasing their applications to graduate schools, this year law school applications are down more than 11 percent:

Applications to start law school in the United States in the fall of 2011 have dropped 11.5 percent since last year and are on target to hit the lowest level in a decade, according to data provided by the Law School Admission Council Inc.

After widespread publicity about the hard-hit legal economy, it appears many prospective applicants have gotten the message that a law degree isn’t necessarily a ticket to well-paid employment or even a legal job, the Wall Street Journal reported.

While many commentators have commented on the economic reasons behind the decline in law school applicants, there is an underappreciated aspect to this trend.  The status of lawyers is declining.  When people and especially parents begin to realize that becoming a law degree is not a guarantee of a secure income, fewer children will be encouraged to become lawyers.  That may or may not happen over the course of a generation. But I am already seeing that some lawyers are beginning to lose some confidence and be aware of their declining fortunes. This may not be a bad thing for lawyers and their clients.  I continue to expect lawyers to be a high-profile occupation.  We’re talking about a relative decline.  If we see lawyer’s jokes go out of favor or largely disappear, then we will know that the status of lawyers has taken a nose dive.  I’m not expecting that, but in this rapidly changing world that wouldn’t shock me.

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Legalese Translator What Does Ex Parte Mean

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 10.22.35 AMLawyers talk differently. They use legalese without explaining it. That’s one reason why it’s hard for many of their clients to understand them.

I recently attended a business breakfast at which a lawyer used the following phrase to describe litigation that he was handling for a client: “I went in ex parte.”

Nothing like a little Greek or Latin at 8:00 in the morning.

Even though many highly educated professionals and business owners were present, very few had any idea what the phrase “ex parte” means.

So let’s see what happens when we toss this phrase into the Legalese Translator:

“Ex Parte” rhymes with partay not part.

In the context of a law suit, it means going to court without giving notice to the other side. Generally speaking, any papers filled by a lawyer must be provided to the lawyer on the other side, and if the other side doesn’t have a lawyer, to the other party or parties to the law suit. There are rare situations, however, where it might be impractical or unwise to give such notice. For example, letting the other side know you will be in court may give them the chance to hide or destroy evidence. That’s what was going on in the law suit this particular attorney was describing. He was representing a company that was accusing a former employee of stealing client lists. The lawyer was trying to make clear that he handled the case aggressively. He went in to court without giving letting the other side know. That’s what “going in ex parte” means.

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Does Your Law Suit Make Economic Sense

A law suit is a tool, not an end in and of itself. Thus, don’t sue someone because you are angry. Do it if filing a law suit helps accomplish an important personal or business objective.

That sounds like common sense advice or even something that you can expect your lawyer to tell you. Too often, however, that’s not the case. Lawyers can get caught up in the litigation process. They focus on upcoming deadlines and what needs to happen in the next 30 to 60 days. Thus, it’s critical that you, as the client or potential client, emphasize what goals are most important to you. Moreover, it helps lawyers if you regularly ask them how the specific steps they are taking during the law suit are designed to serve your goals.

One of the most common problems that arise relates to whether the law suit is actually reasonably calculated to bring you money. Good lawyers think of this at the beginning of the process. It’s not enough to show that someone or some entity broke a law; you also need to make sure they have money. Sometimes the difficulty in collecting or tracking down money makes pursuing a law suit a dicey strategy, regardless of how clear cut the legal issues are. Fortunately, there is a concrete step you can take to determine whether the law suit is likely to make sense financially. Consider retaining an investigator who specializes in tracking down assets before you file a law suit or before the law suit has progressed too far. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they paid their lawyer tens of thousands of dollars or more only to find out that “winning” their law suit wasn’t worth the money it cost.

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Suspended Lawyer of the Month for February 2011

What do you do when a lawyer who has previously been suspended from the practice of law ignores the suspension and continues working as a lawyer?

That’s just one of the questions that is raised by the disciplinary history of California lawyer Walter James Roberts IV.

Here, in its entirety, is the State Bar of California’s summary of the one-year suspension that was imposed in May 2010 on Mr. Roberts:

WALTER JAMES ROBERTS IV [#225339], 47, of Rancho Cucamonga was suspended for two years, stayed, placed on three years of probation with a one-year actual suspension and he was ordered to take the MPRE and comply with rule 9.20 of the California Rules of Court. The order took effect May 2, 2010.

Roberts stipulated that while suspended in 2005 and 2007 he practiced law. He also disobeyed a court order and by failing to disclose his status to his clients, he committed acts of moral turpitude.

He did not comply with probation conditions attached to previous disciplinary orders, including a requirement that he develop a law office management plan, submit quarterly probation reports on time and keep his address current with the State Bar. He also submitted quarterly probation reports that contained misstatements.

In mitigation, Roberts cooperated with the bar’s investigation.

The State Bar’s conduct in this case is more perplexing than Mr. Roberts. It’s not hard to understand why a suspended lawyer might resist telling clients that they have been suspended. But why would you suspend someone who ignored two prior suspensions and submitted probation reports that contained misstatements? It’s also a bit ironic that someone who has at best undermined the effectiveness of prior discipline seems in this instance to be credited for cooperating with the Bar’s investigation.

Given that Mr. Roberts didn’t submit quarterly reports on time, you would think that this would be fairly obvious within a few days of the deadline. I certainly hope that the State Bar will be especially vigilant in monitoring Mr. Robert’s compliance with his current suspension.

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