October 29, 2011(Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“I run a family farm in California’s Central Valley. We have had a very competent, experienced attorney working with us for years. He is retiring and we believe it is a good idea to line up someone new,” Brett wrote.
“A friend’s son recently graduated from law school and I am getting a bit of pressure to have him take over our legal work. He passed the bar the first time, so I know he is smart. My wife says that if I am even considering this, then I need to see a psychiatrist, because lawyers do not go through any kind of an internship. Is that correct? What are your recommendations about hiring a lawyer fresh out of law school?
Do you want to be a guinea pig?
We took Brett’s question to Gideon Grunfeld, a fourth-generation lawyer, who practiced law for more than 10 years with high-profile firms and now helps attorneys manage their practices, as well as advising the public on how to more economically work with their lawyers.
He maintains a website called Lawyersonaleash.com. It is an interesting, funny and useful source of information for anyone who will be hiring an attorney, as well as a great guide for lawyers on how to work more effectively with clients. This site is a real eye-opener – the real deal – in a number of categories, and Grunfeld gets our stamp of approval.
“Tell Brett that his wife is correct; he may need some help if he seriously plans to hire an inexperienced and unsupervised lawyer, especially right out of law school. Do you want to be a guinea pig?” he asks.
“A risky profile is a lawyer fresh out of law school starting a practice. The reason is that most of what lawyers learn is OJL – On-The-Job Learning. But our nationwide, enormous oversupply of attorneys aren’t getting customary law firm jobs. By definition, someone fresh out of law school isn’t likely to have very much experience in handling your particular problem – or anyone’s, for that matter,” he warns.
Law school isn’t like a Harry Potter film
Law school is not like Harry Potter. Over the years, we saw how Harry learned the skills of wizardry, practicing them to our delight. However, law students often leave school filled with theory, but are often clueless about the things that lawyers do in the real world for their clients.
“That is the biggest difference between a legal education and medical school. Under supervision, med students touch, examine and treat patients. In the United States, law students mostly read books and take tests. Only a small percentage of law school education involves hands-on, practical training. Unlike many other countries, there is nothing like a medical internship required for lawyers anywhere in the United States,” he points out.
Most important question to ask a potential lawyer
“Lawyers fresh out of law school who have just passed the bar are often book smart, but too many of them can be dangerous to themselves and their clients unless they work with direct supervision, under the watchful eye of experienced lawyers,” Grunfeld adamantly maintains.
“But you can also see the same thing with a lawyer in practice for 20 years who goes into a new area. They are now subject to the very same dangers of not knowing what they do not know. So, the most important question a client can ask when interviewing a potential lawyer is: How often have you handled my specific problem, and what were the results?” he strongly recommends.
Passing the bar means little
“How many people would like a surgeon to operate on them who only was tested on a written exam, without ever seeing or operating on a real patient?” asked the president of the California State Bar, Howard Miller, in an article for the State Bar Journal in May of 2010 that was highly critical of legal education and the bar examination. “Passing the bar is a flawed measure of whether someone is qualified to practice law,” Miller wrote.
“The bar exam is only proof of the fact that you are successful on a test. It does not mean that you know the first thing about how to practice law, that you have an ounce of common sense, business sense, listening skills or even know where to stand when in a courtroom.
“And, today, with the downturn of the economy, more and more lawyers who graduate from law school are opening up their own practices, without that training and mentoring of previous generations. Developing street smarts in the legal profession takes time, experience and guidance. To the public, this all means an increased likelihood of malpractice and harm,” Grunfeld concludes.
Next time: Asking the right questions is key to finding the right lawyer.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.