I received a Facebook note earlier today from a fraternity pledge brother of mine, from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Missouri. He was writing to me in frustration of the fact his lawyer never returns phone calls, shows up unprepared to meetings, and lacks a sense of purpose in his work. "Why," he asked, "are lawyers such horrible business people?"
My answer to this question will require two blog posts.
I've trained about 30 lawyers since I have been practicing law, with most of these in areas where there is a particular need for aptitude in the sciences (sinkholes, fire cause and origin, and personal injuries), in addition to good legal prowess. In interviewing lawyers, hiring them, and then watching them succeed (or not), I've learned all of these things matter little if the lawyer lacks one, essential skill:
Time management. It's that simple.
You see, for most lawyers who defend cases, there are rarely incentives to do things quickly. They charge by the hour, and many times, they see no value in calling their clients to tell them bad news especially if their clients are insurance companies who are being told to pay their claims. I didn't see it that way, and was one of the few lawyers I knew that would pick up the phone after the initial intake of a new defense case (especially for first party cases in insurance on sinkhole claims) and say "Don't answer this lawsuit - pay them now." This saved everyone money, and gained me the trust of my clients.
Many times, after a case has been around for 2 years (not kidding), it does become apparent that the case is not going well because someone finally sat down and read the damn file. "Wow," the lawyer notes, "our client is screwed." Luckily for the lawyer, the client contact at the insurance company who hired him originally, who he told the case was "looking very defensible," no longer works there. The worst question a lawyer could ever hear after two years is "now that you are asking us to settle this case, what is it about it that changed, before you charged us thousands of dollars to defend it?" Yikes.
The only place where turnover is worse than insurance companies is at insurance defense law firms. In fact, some of the most common defense firms have to hire so frequently, they run nearly continuous advertisements for new lawyers. I was recently in a deposition where my opposing attorney on a million dollar lawyer had been licensed for 4 months, and at one point, become so frightened, he ran from the room into the bathroom. I can show you the deposition, where I asked him what loss of control he must have suffered, which he refused to answer.
Why do most of these bad habits get started? Other than the fact most lawyers have the attention spans of a gold fish, it is time management. Rather than stop what they are doing and sit down for a reasonable period of time to review their files to offer opinions, they waste time and delay the process. Then, after so much time passes, it behooves them to make it look like this was the plan, so the client does not fire them.