There are few occupations where reputation is so powerful as in the law. If you need to retain a lawyer, you want someone with a reputation for being competent, who deals with clients ethically, honestly and not merely as a cash register’s ka-ching.
Fortunately, today’s information age makes looking for an attorney much easier, and not doing research on a lawyer’s reputation and competence can prove costly. The same rules–and consequences–apply to both law students who are looking for a summer legal internship–or that first job after passing the Bar.
Guilt by Association
Professionally, guilt by association is a powerful force. Few law students or recently minted lawyers—please note, I said “Few” as there are no doubt some who relish the idea of their name being connected with a rotten, dishonest lawyer.
If you’ve ever wondered what percent of attorneys fall into that category, I have too, and phoned attorney “Y,” who heads the Client Security Fund of one of the largest Bar Associations in the nation, compensating victims of dishonest lawyers. Requesting that her name not appear in this story, she answered the question:
“This is politically incorrect to admit, but Dennis, from my experience, the answer is 10% of all lawyers fall into that category, and many of them get away with it. From over 20 years in this field, in my opinion the level of fundamental morality, ethics and honesty in the American legal profession has probably never been so low as it is today.”
“I’ll Take Any Job Offered”
In what can be a frenzied task of looking for a summer position in a law firm, or searching for that first job as a lawyer, so often they will take any job with any attorney. It has proven to be a poor choice for some, as just about every summer this column is contacted by law students–and new attorneys–who discover that all the nice things the boss told them about being ethical and putting the client’s interest first was anything but.
On the phone I take them through a little exercise. “Use any search engine and type in the name of the attorney, add: disciplined, sued for malpractice, theft and hit Enter. What comes up?”
In almost every case, some of the worst comments imaginable from former clients or employees about the lawyer, and I ask my reader, “You did not research this gal, before going to work there, did you?”
You can guess the answer.
So, what’s a law student or young lawyer to do when discovering that the boss isn’t just morally bankrupt, but finds evidence of illegal billing, incompetence, drug or alcohol use which has harmed clients?
“Derek” needed to know.
Review File – Review File – Review File
“I am a second year law student and really need your help. With grades that are just adequate, no matter where I interviewed for summer employment all law firms but one said no. But right after the meeting with the head of this firm–who is a single practitioner–I was hired on the spot. I had this bad feeling, hearing what was in fact a red flag when she said, ‘Thank God I found you! Because I just couldn’t get any second or even third-year student to work for me.’
Within a brief period of time his feeling would be validated, when “Things turned scary,” Derek learning that:
(1) The boss was billing clients’ for work that he, Derek had done, but at the employer’s full hourly rate and not Derek’s which was less than $50.00 an hour.
(2) Clients were billed a monthly, recurring charge of $350 labeled, File Review, “When we had not touched the file for months. She said that in law, morality does not matter and this is the only way to make money.”
(3) Lied to clients about progress on their cases.
Speak Up or Remain Silent?
I arranged for a conference call with Derek and a paralegal in his State Bar Association’s Ethics Hot Line, which is a service for attorneys, paralegals and law students needing guidance when nightmares like this erupt.
“We can take an anonymous complaint so that you are not identified, but for now I suggest that you contact those clients who are at greatest risk and explain what you have found. Also, if it were me, I would get out of there – quickly – and use your cell phone to capture proof of what you’ve found,” Derek was advised.
He did just that over the following week, emailing, “Mr. Beaver, morality—right and wrong–it matters to me and it must in the law, right?”
Yes, Derek, It sure does.