December 16, 2022 • By Dennis Beaver
The HBO comedy-drama Succession has been a powerful impetus for family-owned businesses across America to consider who will take over upon the death or retirement of the owner.
That issue is the basis of today’s story, which began with an email from, “Robin.”
“I am President of our family-owned market research/marketing firm. I want to pass the reins to our twin sons, both recent college graduates who were in a pre-law program and seem pretty jazzed on becoming lawyers.
“They told us about how great that would be, describing lectures from their teacher and guest speakers who were attorneys, painting a rosy picture of the law business.
“As we need frequent consultation with legal counsel, I made them this offer: ‘I will pay for your legal education. After passing the bar, get some experience working in a law firm that handles our kinds of cases, and then become our company lawyers, and when I retire, you take over.’
“They agreed, but then I raised an issue they had not thought of.
“We are a very religious family. Could they survive in an environment where lawyers, in general, have a poor reputation for ethical behavior? I have read your articles for years – notably, several about highly dishonest behavior – padded bills, faked invoices – and would appreciate your insight.”
Few Saints Hold Bar Cards
It is no secret that lawyers have a poor reputation. Note, I did not say, “the legal profession.” Many writers feel that law ceased being a profession when the U.S. Supreme Court declared lawyer advertising legal in 1977.
What followed was a spike in applications to enter law school, leading to our nation-wide glut of lawyers, and what we see daily on television: a never-ending parade of attorneys after your personal injury case.
But a possible answer to Robin’s question – could his boys survive in the law’s environment – came from a lengthy phone call I received from “Darren,” also a long-time reader, who taught pre-law courses at a well-known Midwest university for years.
(I vetted Darren, using a variety of research tools, so his call was legit.)
Decided, ‘Why Not?’ And Became a Lawyer Himself
“I ran of our pre-law program for many years and had a great relationship with local law firms who sent lawyers to speak with our students. They always presented the most positive view imaginable of the occupation.
“For years I’ve read your column and admit not believing the stories of bill padding, inventing billable hours, and other ethical and illegal violations brought to your attention by law clerks and recently admitted attorneys. I just thought they were the product of disgruntled employees, but no more, Mr. Beaver.”
And then Darren told a painful history of what he learned about law firm reality. His comments match those of other disillusioned pre-law teachers who became lawyers I have spoken with over the years.
“I studied law at night, passed the bar the first time, and was hired part-time by one of the firms that had sent me guest speakers. In the first two weeks, I saw the same things that you had written about! I dug out your articles – You were so right! And then a couple of my former students who worked at this firm said, ‘Prof, let’s have dinner and talk.’”
‘We are so miserable – Don’t stay here!’
They went to a restaurant out of town, “And these two young ladies were close to tears describing what was expected of them,” Darren said.
“We are required to bill clients over 2,000 hours a year – meaning you worked on client cases, which is impossible. If I spent one hour on a client’s case, I was told to write down three – and it went on like that!” said one, adding, “This is playing havoc with my conscience and marriage! But I have over $150,000 in student loans to repay! I’m trapped working over 80 hours a week here!”
And the other?
She showed me billing sheets of her court appearances for multiple clients on the same calendar call.
“I was told to bill each client for the entire time I spent in court – two hours –
instead of a fraction as is legally required, and that is theft,” she admitted.
‘We Can Wear Them Down and Settle for Pennies on the Dollar’
“I saw a file where we represented a commodity buyer who repeatedly stiffed several farmers over many years. Our client owed the money – there was no justification for refusing to pay. So, I asked a senior partner about it and his reply was, ‘We do what our clients tell us to do. So we delay, delay, and run up the bill for the farmers and eventually they settle for cents on the dollar.’”
“With a big smile, making this sound like a joke, I said, ‘So, just like Nuremberg, you are merely following orders.’ He laughed and said, ‘How else can we keep the lights on?
Listen, Darren, right and wrong, basic morality and the truth doesn’t matter in this business.’”
Can Someone with High ethical values Survive in Law?
Darren remained six months in the firm, “To observe as much as possible that I could bring into the classroom – to give my students an honest dose of the downside to law.
“During that time I was in the company of more depressed and unhappy people than I’ve ever met – all of them lawyers.”
We concluded our interview with his recommendation for Robin’s sons:
“This occupation easily corrupts your moral compass. If honesty, integrity and keeping your hands and spirit clean matter, I would tell his boys to do their own research into these critical issues, and a good place to begin is Above the Law.com.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.