Friday, June 3, 2011

What makes a good lawyer?

I graduated from law school (Fordham U. in New York City) in 1988 and have been practicing since.  I've been in every kind of court, seen every kind of judge, and opposed every kind of lawyer.  A "good lawyer" is someone who understands what it means to be a professional.

A professional cares about his client.  He or she follows up.  He thinks alot about ways to help his client and his case.  He is punctual.  He returns phone calls.  He keeps his client and everyone else involved updated, advised and in the loop.  He explains, describes, seeks input from others, and has a plan.  He is mindful about what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen, and from time to time updates his client accordingly.  He is responsible and accountable.  He is not content to do the minimum.

From my first boss I learned three key rules of practice:  1.  Universality (look at your actions as affecting the whole of the case); 2.  Be active (not reactive); 3.  Titles mean nothing (don't assume that just because so-and-so is a "learned judge" or "famous lawyer" or president of his company that they know what they are doing any more than anyone else).

The type of case does not change the need for professionalism.  In civil cases the issues usually boil down to what is reasonable; in criminal cases what is alleged; in divorce cases what is equitable.  A good lawyer is able to apply his work ethic to whatever issue comes up so to maximize his client's chances of a good result. 

Too many times in criminal cases I've seen defense lawyers barely do the minimum - they are just choreographers dancing their client's way through a bad plea and sentencing.  Prosecutors and judges rely on these type of lawyers to smooth the process, knowing they won't fight.  In civil and divorce cases I've seen too many lawyers lose focus of or ignore what matters, racking up fees and costs, delaying the case, and causing more harm than good.

The joke says that 99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name.  Professionalism in the law is not dead; you just need to know what to look for.

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