Monday, July 08, 2013

What the Public Needs to Know About Lawyers

Catchy title, right ? Deliberately chosen for two reasons: 1) if the public becomes aware then changes may actually occur and 2) most people who need a lawyer NEED to know this. The two major points are:  the way lawyers practice and become licensed needs drastic improvement and the old stereotype of lawyers is wrong. First, a fact: there are TOO many lawyers. Another fact: people don't like lawyers. They generally rate them next to car salesmen in most untrusted professions. The problem: why are there too many lawyers ? The old stereotype of parents wanting their kids to be successful so they encourage them to be doctors or lawyers has come and gone. Doctors maybe still (mainly because there is a shortage of them, they come at a premium), but most lawyers are lucky to find jobs coming out of law school (it's amazing how many resumes I get every time I have an associate position open) and very few out of law school start at 85k. The average criminal defense lawyer on their own makes 50k a year. We are living in a day and time where MANY kids who go to law schools never practice. They end up finding other jobs in industry because the money in law can't compete and there are not enough jobs. To compound this problem, MORE tax payer dollars are being spent to create more law schools at a time where there is a surplus NOT a need. In the DFW metroplex alone, SMU has a distinguished law school of many years, now a TWU law school and a new one from University of North Texas is being built. Why ? We should ask our legislators. Apparently, they are not plugged in. If anything at all, it will create more contenders for their elected positions (lawyers predominate elected positions in the state house and senate).  So what does this mean for the public besides more people on the unemployment rolls and dashed dreams and visions ?  More hungry lawyers without jobs resorting to desperate marketing and taking cases for which they are not prepared to render effective legal services. Which brings me to the practical point of what the public knows.

It is still generally true that most people think if they have a problem, any old lawyer can fix it whether it is a family law, criminal law or contracts issue. Despite the board certification process, most of the public thinks hiring a board certified lawyer is too costly and just anyone can do even when not in that field. The truth is you can't afford not to hire a specialist. Most people think law schools teach lawyers how to handle every kind of problem, NOT true.  Law school basically teaches someone how to read massive amounts of literature of which they are then tested on their memorization skills. Most law schools allow at least 50% of the curriculum to be chosen by the student. So, who knows you may be hiring a lawyer to handle your tax issue who never even took income tax in law school ! Better yet, they may have majored in English and know nothing whatsoever about taxes !  Pitiable, but true. Because law schools are so hard to get into, the reality now is that liberal arts majors with high GPAs are comprising most of the students being accepted due to a law school's formula of high LSAT score and high GPA. This is the first major problem. The world needs liberal arts majors: editors, social workers, psychologists but when it comes to lawyers it needs critical thinkers: science and math majors whom of course, their GPAs due to the hard subject material almost never compares. I still face liberal arts backgrounds assistant district attorneys whose eyes glaze over when I discuss margins of errors. (Why relevant ? If you are going to punish someone at .08 or .15 then the confidence level and margin of error of that number is damn important). Law schools have not woken  up to this fact yet. They still continue on an ancient formula started back in a day where they were lucky to have people want to go to law school. So necessary improvement number one: start admitting people who can mathematically calculate and scientifically question.  NEED FOR CRITICAL THINKERS. Start requiring a basic requisite hours of science or continuing legal education for lawyers who want to practice in a certain field (for example criminal law which is based on forensics or patent law).

The second problem is how easy it is to get licensed. Once you graduate from law school, although you have never practiced a day in your life- once you pass the bar exam you get  the golden license and green light. Super scary thought. The bar exam does not teach you how to practice, it tests you on how much you have memorized in a half dozen topics.  I have a judge friend who laments to me how mad and frustrated she gets when she has a lawyer in trial who does not know the basics and his/her client suffers unfairly for this. My friend also gets aggravated when new lawyers approach her with wrong motions and misunderstand the proper remedy for what they are trying to do. Why ? Because there is no substitute for experience.  Architects in order to become licensed must submit 5600 hours of "intern development program" training hours (all signed off by a licensed architect in many different areas of architecture) just to sit for the Architectural Record Examination (7 tests to become licensed). Under the original Hammarabi's code, if an architect built a building and it fell and killed someone the victim's family could kill the architect. That kind of responsibility still carries over in how hard it is to become a licensed architect due to the importance of the job. There are hundred thousands of people with architecture degrees working the architecture industry but only a hundred thousand licensed architects. It takes most architects 8-9 years on average to satisfy the 5600 IDP hours because it must be earned in so many fields.  In law, we have people with no experience representing accused murder defendants and prosecutors with no real training in science locking people away on toxicology results they don't know enough to even question. Very scary considering recent scandals of lab workers from Mass. to Texas caught falsifying results. Second necessary improvement: we NEED an intern program before getting licensed. Even back in Abraham Lincoln and the Founding Fathers day one had to intern with an experienced attorney before getting licensed. We owe this to the public.

Practical example. Recently, on top of my Founding Father hobby (reading books so I can better argue the original intent of the law) and running,  I decided to take up sewing for fun as a hobby. I thought to myself- how hard can this be ? It took me months before I found a place that would sell me a sewing machine and give me an hour and a half lesson on the spot on basics because I have NO time for lessons. Thinking I knew how to thread a needle and wind a bobbin, I went out and bought material thinking I was going to create magnificent and stunning clothes that could not be bought at shops. My first mistake was in thinking I could start with no pattern. My second mistake when I finally succumbed to buying a pattern, was thinking I could cut the pattern and just sew. (My first top would not even go over my head it was so tight). I quickly came to realize that although my desire was great, there was a science in learning how to cut a pattern, a language to learn in understanding how to sew a pattern and these were just the basics. Doing buttons and zippers and blind hems were on a whole different level.  This made me think about law. I remember my first few trials when I was so frustrated not realizing that it wasn't so easy to get evidence admitted, that I had to memorize and learn the song and dance that it required and know how it could go wrong in so many ways with so many objections and how to respond. I learned the hard way. Just like with sewing, I had to practice. The books and directions don't really teach you how to pick the perfect trim, it's a talent but most of all you have to learn through trial and error.  I think it is downright criminal to turn newly licensed lawyers on the loose to the unaware and trusting public. You just can't expect a lawyer without the proper training (that's not law school, that's real cases) to do it well.  I may be a beginner at sewing, but in 18 years- I no longer "buy the patterns" with my DWI practice.  I make the patterns, fully customized to my cases. My DWI practice has progressed well beyond cookie cutter forms. I read the new cases and understanding the law and all its nuances create my own "patterns" (motions).  When it comes to picking out the perfect fabric and trim- after 18 years of constantly trying cases I can instantly know whether or not I want a juror by merely watching their reactions, reading their face and juror questionnaire (knowing what is important versus irrelevant). It even encompasses meaning  from interpreting why they chose the clothes they wear and who they choose to talk to (to determine their ability to influence others). I know almost everything I need to know before they even open their mouth. I have honed an ability to take their DWI temperature like a doctor's looks at a patient before they even take their temperature. I teach my associates this. I train my associates in all the complex nuances of DWI law. There is nothing more important at the Coffey Firm than all of us all honed in on trying to avoid a conviction or mitigating the damage when a conviction is unavoidable. Now ask me to do a divorce and although I am an experienced trial lawyer, I could not tell you jack about who would or wouldn't be a good juror.  The law is complex. It is not one size fits all. The average Joe Blow of the public is fooling himself if he thinks a cardiologist can perform brain surgery, the same with law.  It is time our state bars protect the public against gross malpractice and improper training. We need a required internship program under experienced lawyers. We need more board certifications in specialized areas (I myself spearheaded the DWI board certification recognition in Texas).  People's lives: divorces, money judgments, possible prison sentences are too important to leave it to rogue lawyers desperate to make a buck. We need to take back control of the lawyer licensing process (limit the number of lawyers) so that thousands of young people don't waste hundreds of thousands of dollars to go through law school only to end up with no job. That simply is not fair.

I hope that this piece either directly helps someone or inspires needed change.  I always offer to help other lawyers on DWI. I share my legal motions and voir dire powerpoints  with other lawyers. I will continue to travel the state and country to help train other lawyers through my unpaid speaking engagements and will continue to publish.  The law has given me a chance to practice my talents, I in turn want to give back by helping others as much as possible.

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