Wednesday, December 9, 2009

To Dabble or Not to Dabble.

Now is the winter of our discontent
As the nation's economic woes continue to empty pockets, many lawyers have begun to feel the pinch. Laid off corporate lawyers have ventured into private practice. Solo practitioners have begun sticking their toes into other practice area pools. It is no surprise. After all, Delores your secretary need to get paid, the heat needs to stay on and, to paraphrase Eddie Murphy, you need to be able to buy your kid the GI Joe with the Kung Fu grip. It's a tumultuous time where dogs are sleeping with cats, Michael Jackson is gone and Sarah Palin had a best seller before anyone even read a page of her book.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit. W. Shakespeare
In my own neck of the woods, I have seen many of my colleagues struggle. Attorneys with once thriving real estate practices have reluctantly taken down their shingles. While some have quit law practice altogether, many have decided to trudge onward by branching out into unfamiliar areas of law. I am seeing more new faces in criminal and divorce court. You can always tell the new guys. They might awkwardly stand behind the wrong table only to be corrected by the court marshal or will be unfamiliar with some other quirky local court custom. They usually have a deer in the headlights it's my first day in school look about them. I myself am guilty of this. Although it was always our practice to pass on such cases, I recently agreed to do a small claims case for a long time client. I took on the matter as if I was arguing before the Supreme Court. Breaking out my well thumbed rules of evidence, I objected to the poor pro se defendant's every word. "We're a little more laid back here counselor" quipped the magistrate. "You don't need to object to everything." When it came time to present evidence, I did the best impression of the late Johnnie Cochran I could muster. "Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I have in my hand the evidence that will prove my case!" "Counselor, just show the defendant your picture of the leaky toilet. No need for theatrics. There is no jury." Now, I am not suggesting attorneys should not venture into other practice areas. Just be careful and know what your getting into. Don't jump into a new practice area head first. If you are unfamiliar with immigration law, don't let your ego convince you that you can "wing it". Areas like immigration law can often be a one shot deal for your client. You screw up and your client is on the next boat back to Katmandu. If you use the wrong wording on a collection letter, you can get yourself sued. Miss a key piece of evidence in a criminal matter and your client loses their freedom. If you are seriously interested about a new practice area, do the proper research. It is not a bad idea to audit a class or even find a mentor in that particular practice area. If you're not prepared, you can potentially find yourself in a world of trouble.

Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. W. Shakespeare
I was recently approached by a client who wanted a "simple will" done. After having a consultation with the client I realized his request was anything but a simple will. He wanted me to prepare a complicated estate plan that included several homes, a substantial amount of stocks and cash, 401 K plans, and irrevocable trusts for his three children. The client started asking me questions that made me think I was taking the bar exam again. What are the tax consequences if I convert my 401 K into an interest bearing whozee whatzit? What happens to my home if I go into a nursing home? What if the trust indicates that my son is to receive the vacation villa in France and then he has a sex change operation? As my daughter, would it invalidate the trust? I took whatever information I could and set up a second consultation. I then called the cavalry. I called an attorney who's practice focused on estate planning.

Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven. W. Shakespeare
I had known Joseph since elementary school. After losing touch for several years, I heard he opened his own practice which focused on estate planning. I also heard he built up a solid reputation in that particular area. I asked him if he wouldn't mind coming in to consult with my client. Because the client spoke limited English, I sat in on the consultation as an interpreter. It was soon evident that Joe was the right person for my client's needs. He did a step by step analysis of my client's situation and helped guide him to a proper estate plan. He had the experience and the proper expertise. I decided to forgo the fee and referred the client to Joe.

My pride fell with my fortunes. W. Shakespeare
As tempting as it may be to take any client who walks in the door, don't lose sight of the big picture. It is important to remain selective. If you cannot devote the time to learn a particular area, it is probably not a good idea to venture there. Don't let pride and a quick paycheck cloud your judgment. Mistakes can lead to malpractice claims, unhappy clients and a besmirched reputation.


Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | said...

Great post. Considering it comes from a practicing attorney (sorry, I just had to make the joke). I definitely like many of the points you bring up and client-focused context.

I have recently written an article called "Dear attorneys, here’s what you can do to stop business people from hating you."
In the article I cover some of the pet peeves we, business people, have with attorneys and what they can do about it. One of the points I bring up is that there should be Socratic oath as part of the admittance to the Bar.

With the employment where it is these days and gross overproduction of attorneys, I see more and more of desperate and inexperienced ones claiming they can do everything. It takes deeper examination and reference check to uncover if they ever even practiced in the area. I hate to say it, but I am not going to hire someone to be their guinea pig. That is what pro bono work is for.

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