If you ever want to make your lawyer squirm, say to them, "Please describe to me what you interpret your job to be."
Ok, that’s just mean. But interacting with legal professionals isn’t always the easiest or most pleasant—and sometimes it’s so lousy you are left wondering about where to draw the line. Of course it’s up to you whether the value you are getting out of legal counsel is worthwhile, but here are five signs you may want to take your business elsewhere.
1. They don’t say “Yes, and…”
Like a good improv comic, lawyers need to be able to think on their feet in order to support their client's vision. It’s actually their job to help you achieve your professional goals—not to give you a million reasons why something is too risky or complicated. They may be trying to steer you away from potential danger zones of illegality or risk but they shouldn’t be shutting down your plans with a “no”—they should be creating space for the two of you to think through innovative solutions with a “Yes, and…” So if all they do is nay-say, it might be time to make a change.
2. You can't sue them
If your lawyer is incompetent or dishonest can you sue for malpractice? In theory you can, but there are a couple things lawyers do to make it difficult. One is not maintaining malpractice insurance (only between a third and a half do), which means that suing, even if you win, yields limited benefits. Worse, many lawyers insert mandatory “arbitration” clauses in their retainer contracts that say you can’t sue until going through a sub-legal process called arbitration that tends to disadvantage the client. Such clauses may be a red flag when it comes to accountability for poor performance.
3. They act like you need them for every little thing
The law is intimidating, so it’s easy to assume you need a professional to help you do anything related to the field. But often this just isn’t the case. There are lots of basic legal tasks that you can do yourself if you’re willing to put a little research in. For things like standard contracts and leases, wills, and uncontested divorce you may want to hire a lawyer (or better yet a paralegal) to “check your work,” but you can get a lot done without them. Beware a lawyer who acts like you need them to do everything from scratch—you’re a client, not a cash cow.
4. You don't know what they’re billing you for
Do you receive invoices that show more time spent on your case than you expected? It may be that conversations you thought were casual or too short to matter were actually “on the clock.” Attorneys often approximate the amount of time they spend on things or apply a standard dollar figure for certain tasks even when they take way less time than the average, which can lead to some truly inflated invoices. It’s always a good idea to ask if you are being billed for a particular conversation or task and how much, but if it feels like you have to be hyper-vigilant to avoid being over-billed, that's not exactly a confidence booster…
5. They don’t seem to have a damn clue what they’re talking about
Like medicine or engineering or any other highly-specialized field, in law the devil is in the details; having one area of expertise (patents, for example) does not necessarily spill over to other areas (for example employment discrimination), despite existing under the “legal” umbrella. It may seem like any lawyer is better than no lawyer, but in reality your attorney better have relevant experience working on the kind of case or task you hired them to do. If your attorney seems clueless more often than not, either they are checked out and don’t care about your case or they are just legitimately unqualified. Either way, you can do better.