November 05, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
A friend’s son graduates from law school, passes the California bar exam on the first try – something to be very proud of – and opens his own office, wanting to handle legal work for your family’s farm. But he’s never actually worked in law. Because of the poor economy, he has been unable to find an entry level job with any law firm, so he’s hanging out his own shingle.
As your attorney of many years is retiring, it’s important to find a lawyer who will take over. The young man is sharp, likeable and you want to hire him, but is this a wise decision?
These were Brett’s questions, and last week we began our discussion of the risks involved in hiring a newly minted, inexperienced lawyer. We spoke with Gideon Grunfeld, a fourth-generation attorney who, after 10 years of high-profile law practice, changed careers and now helps lawyers manage their practices while also advising the public on how to “hire, work with and control their attorneys.”
His website, Lawyeronaleash.com, provides insights into the realities of law practice and is filled with valuable information for both attorneys and clients.
I just read a book on surgery: Can I take out your appendix?
“Law has always been an apprenticeship profession emphasizing OJL, or on-the-job learning due to law schools graduating students, their heads filled with theory – but painfully little practical training, if any at all. In the nation’s premier law schools, you will even find professors who have never practiced law. But from the first year of medical school, students learn from real doctors how to treat patients.
“Could you imagine yourself in a hospital emergency room suffering from appendicitis and being introduced to a surgeon who explains that his training was reading a book on surgery?
But in law, that is a very real risk with someone right out of school. Passing the bar means you are a good test taker, not that you know the first thing about what lawyers actually do in the real world,” Grunfeld maintains.
He’s right, and if you ask most lawyers if they knew what they were doing right out of law school, chances are pretty good you will see great big smirks across their faces.
“Lawyering skills have historically been developed with guidance from experienced colleagues in law firms, over years of 12-hour days, often six days a week. Fresh out of school, on your own, can spell incompetence, not because new lawyers are stupid, but because they haven’t been taught the actual mechanics of law practice – how to put theory into practice – which leads to a real danger of malpractice and added expense for clients,” he points out.
“That said, everyone starts somewhere, and I must stress there is nothing wrong in working with right-out-of-school attorneys as long as they have someone much more experienced supervising them.
“But make sure the hourly rate of beginning lawyers is discounted for their level of experience. But if something about a bill seems wrong, don’t delay, ask questions and complain if necessary. Be polite, but do not ever worry about making your lawyer angry. Law is a service business requiring good, two-way communication, especially when there are doubts or questions about a bill.”
To find the right lawyer, ask the right questions
Grunfeld believes most people go about finding a lawyer the wrong way.
“One of the greatest mistakes you can make in the search for a lawyer is by failing to identify your legal needs first, and then finding a lawyer. Make a list of legal problems which have come up in the past, as they are likely to be repeated. As your reader is a farmer, one of his challenges is hiring people legally here, also environmental and public health issues, such as pesticide overspraying or contaminated produce. Finally, how about just getting paid for their crops?
“So Brett needs a lawyer – and most likely a law firm – with a strong agricultural focus.”
References are important
“Remember you are hiring someone to work for you. Just like any other employee, references are extremely important. Speak with their clients, ask for samples of their written work, such as pleadings, letters, press clippings or information in the media about them or their firm. Go down to the courthouse and look at the actual papers they’ve filed.
“The more you have at risk – money, the family business, custody of your kids – the more you need to do a thorough background on that lawyer you’re thinking of hiring,” Grunfeld concluded.
And to do that, simply look at the State Bar of California attorney discipline records, available online at calbar.ca.gov.
There, all you want to find is nothing, or “No Record of Discipline.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.