September 4, 2020 • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, I am a long time reader and appreciate the fact that you do not fear pointing out bad behavior by some lawyers. I would like to know what you do not like about the legal profession. Thanks, Mark from Eureka, California.”
I must stress from the beginning that my comments do not apply to all lawyers. Across many years of practicing law, I’ve met attorneys who earned my respect because they exhibited high ethical standards, integrity, and sought fairness.
However in my experience, they were the minority. There are many valid reasons why the public does not trust lawyers and our profession has earned its one star rating. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey on professional public esteem, lawyers were rated at the bottom of the barrel.
So, let’s begin with one, simple, crucial word that for many lawyers is a concept they would rather forget: Fairness.
When it comes to simply being fair, many lawyers attempt everything possible to prevent a fair and just outcome, rationalized by the statement, “I am zealously representing my client.”
While zealous representation means that a lawyer must act with competence and diligence, the term is often a justification for helping clients do very bad things which are not just unfair, but plain wrong.
Lawyers who see themselves as hired guns often proudly admit that, to them, morality does not matter, they are providing zealous representation, doing what their client has instructed and paid them to do. This is commonly seen in Family Law, where, instead of using our skills to bring about a fair and reasonable settlement, so many attorneys delight in fanning the fires of hatred — so long as the money keeps on coming in.
Fairness–basic right and wrong–has become a 4 letter word, a joke, and pity the lawyer who just wants to help solve a problem in an equitable, just and fair manner. I have seen lawyers stand up in court and tell opposing counsel, and the judge “But that just isn’t fair! It’s not right!” This was followed by the sound of laughter from other attorneys waiting for their cases to be called. And, sadly, by some judges as well, as, in our system of justice, judges come from the ranks of attorneys.
Yet, we have the training and experience to know what a fair outcome should be in most situations. Law school teaches us, not only the law, but how courts have taken highly complex situations and crafted just results.
We have the same ability if–and it is a big if–if we try to be fair and not simply do what our often unreasonable clients demand, happy to pay us to frustrate justice, to get even, to seek revenge for things real or imagined.
Yes, it is important to see and learn how to argue all sides in a dispute, but when presented with the significant facts of most cases, there is rarely a mystery. If A owes B money and hasn’t paid, “why” is usually clear; perhaps there are valid reasons, such as B not delivering exactly what was promised, which might call for a price adjustment.
Maybe A has financial problems and can’t pay in full now, but could, given time. Or, perhaps A is just a crook.
Given two reasonable, objective, fair minded lawyers who seek the truth and have the strength of character to tell their clients what they need to hear, most disputes can be settled before they become lawsuits. Often, going to court is an admission of failure – or justification to run up a bill which could have been avoided if one or both lawyers focused on helping their clients instead of fattening their own pocketbooks.
But, when all you care about is an hourly fee, dancing so long as the client keeps on paying, then it’s full steam ahead into becoming your client’s own worst enemy.
“Don’t Ask Me to be Fair”
In one divorce case, I asked opposing counsel, “What do you think would be a fair settlement?” Her reply floored me:
“Don’t ask me to be fair. I am representing my client.”
In divorce and custody cases, so often our clients are distraught, depressed, don’t know up from down and are given advice from well-meaning but frequently uninformed friends and family.
They need our guidance, and we owe these tortured souls the truth. We have an absolute duty to impress upon them how critical it is to be fair to each other at all times, and especially if they have children.
For our clients are the role model of children who, one day will be parents of their own kids.
They can be just like us in good ways, or in bad.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.