Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Cranky Counselor

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Cranky Consumer Column by Charles Passy, s about legal help lines. The WSJ staff tested 5 different providers with the same two legal questions, and then ran those questions and responses by law professors from Villanova University. The results were published in a chart, along with the comments of the reporters and a summary of the comments by the law professors.

The theme of the article was that it isn't really necessary to meet with (pay) an attorney for many of our routine legal battles. It seemed that the average time spent by the attorneys on these questions was about 15 minutes. Roughly, the reporters paid an average of $30 per review. Only a minority of the attorneys who responded asked to see the documents regarding that matter. And one of the attorneys was not even licensed in the relevant State.

The reporters preferred the service that they felt was the easiest to use, even though the law professors felt that he was unethical. The law professors favored a service that the reporters disliked. The reporters disliked him because they thought the advice too vague to be helpful.

Every day I get calls that start off like... "I just have a simple question. I don't need to meet with an attorney, I just need an answer to my simple question." Those persons, just like the WSJ reporters, just don't get it. There are very rarely any "simple questions".

Even the most simple case can turn one way or the other based upon different facts. The world isn't black and white; there is a spectrum, and there are dimensions that intersect with the spectrum. These facts can only be brought out properly in a dialog, with questions and answers.

When documents are involved, it is critical that the attorney read the documents. This takes time. Time is money. I have conducted interviews that took us 20 minutes, and I have done them in 3 hours. I have conducted initial consultations for free, and I have done them for $2500. Every case is different. That is why you use an attorney instead of a vending machine.

Sometimes the most accurate advice is vague. It may not be what the consumer is asking for, but it may be the truth. Sometimes clients are displeased because they don't get the answer that they expect. That is part of the attorney's responsibility . . . to tell the client the truth even if it is not what the client wants to hear.

In the end, the WSJ test resulted in paying for interviews that may have been available for free in an attorney's office. The reviews were skimpy and insufficient to properly answer the questions of the client so as to give the client sufficient information with which to make a decision about how to proceed. And so what are they selling? Both the help-lines and the WSJ reporter are selling the consumer short. They are selling an attitude. They are selling an illusion.

It is dangerous and misleading to the consumer. Just look at the reporters' conclusions. They chose the one the law professors shunned. They chose him because he went along with the illusion. Why bother having the law professors involved at all if you are going to conclude something different? And why bother having an attorney review your legal matter if you have already made up your mind that you don't need one? Who are you really hurting?

I agree that there are many types of problems and cases where you don't need a lawyer. Fine. Our feelings aren't hurt. Handle it on your own. But splitting the difference and confusing the issue as to whether you have a lawyer or not, and approaching a legal review of a matter like you are ordering a hamburger at McDonald's hurts everyone.

By the way, I participate in some legal help-line programs. I treat each case through these programs just like I treat a client across the table from me. I ask questions and review documents. Sometimes a client is satisfied. Such is my profession.

Way by the way, I didn't include the link to the WSJ article because they have this requirement that you register and all of that. Bill may come along and clean up my mess here with some high quality research links, like he does (he's really good at that). In the mean time, I have to go back to making a living.