Monday, March 31, 2008

Is Your Lawyer an SOB?

An acquaintance told me recently that he hired a particular attorney because he heard the attorney was an "SOB." That struck me as a rather odd requirement and got me to thinking, why would you want an SOB for an attorney?

If you were hiring a plumber would you want him to be an SOB?
If you were hiring an accountant would you want him to be an SOB?
Would you want an SOB for a son-in-law or a spouse? How about for a doctor?

What is an SOB? I picture someone who is rude, undependable, dishonest, and generally unlikeable. Why would you look for this in someone who is going to handle your money and act as your agent?

I think this is something we can rightfully blame on TV. We see rude, unethical, attorneys on TV who get great results for their clients. They are disrespectful to the judge and the opposing attorneys. Despite this, they always win and the client loves them. However, this is not the reality.

I think it is important to understand what attorneys do for their clients, particularly in a medical malpractice case. At the end of the day, almost all medical malpractice cases are settled before going to trial. Prior to that, your attorney must work closely with the attorney representing the doctor or hospital. They must work together to obtain all the medical records, to take depositions of all the witnesses, to schedule hearings, and to generally get the case ready for trial. If this process is done by someone who is rude, dishonest, undependable and unlikeable, it is likely to be longer, more expensive, and less productive. Why would the opposing attorney want to cooperate with your SOB lawyer? If your lawyer acts like an SOB, the opposing attorney will likely assume a similar style and before long the entire process has degenerated into a petty school yard fight. This might make for good TV, but it doesn't help the client in the real world.

What your attorney should be doing is building a case that sends a message to the other side that, if this case goes to trial, you will win. He should also be contributing to an atmosphere that allows for open communication between both sides about whether the case should be settled. And finally, he should be able to get the other side to pay fair value for the case.

Ask your self this question; If you were going to pay someone money for something, a car, a mowed lawn, anything, would you rather pay that money to someone you liked or disliked? Have you ever been in a situation where you would rather just not complete the transaction than have to deal with the other person anymore. Have you ever said, "I like the food at that restaurant, but the waiter was such a jerk, I'm never giving them any of my money again."

Well, I don't think it is any different when it comes to settling malpractice cases. It is going to be harder to get the other side to pay fair value for your case if they hate your lawyer, and by extension hate you. There comes a point when they would rather walk away from the transaction than put any money in the SOB lawyer's pocket.

I am not saying there are not good lawyers who are SOB's. I'm saying that if they are good lawyers who get good results for their clients, it is in spite of the fact they are SOB's and not because of it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Large Firm v. Small Firm

I receive many phone calls from potential clients medical malpractice clients who ask about the size of my firm. It seems that many people have an idea in their head about the size of the firm they would like representing them. I don't know if this pre-conceived idea comes from prior experience or from stereo-types used on popular TV shows.

Whatever the reason, people seem to believe that the larger the firm, the better it must be. I would suggest that this is not the best way to select an attorney. Would you pick a doctor simply based on the number of other doctors that work in the same office? Or would you select a doctor that has a good reputation and good "bed-side" manner, regardless of how many other doctor's names on are on the door?

As with doctors, it doesn't matter how many attorney's names are on the letterhead if your attorney never has time to meet with you and doesn't return your phone calls. What I often hear from clients who come to me after first testing the waters of the big firm is that they rarely even got to speak with their attorney. Any communications were filtered through the attorney's paralegal or secretary.

I believe this is the case for a couple of reasons. First, lawyers are human. They get caught up in the "big firm" atmosphere and eventually convince themselves that they don't need to deal directly with their clients. They're too important for that. Second, they likely have too many clients. The ability of a big firm lawyer to advance in the firm and achieve partnership status is determined by his/her ability to bring in clients. The result is an attorney with an extensive list of clients, few of whom get the attention they need or reserve.

If your big firm attorney is "in a deposition" or "in a conference" every time you try and call him, I would start to suspect something. He's either too important to talk to you or too busy to handle your case. Either way, you suffer.

However, the atmosphere at a smaller firm can, and should be completely different. At my firm, for example, we specifically limit the number of cases we take so that we can offer personalized service to all of our clients. If you call, I will speak with you. If you want to have a meeting, we will arrange it. I have met with many of my clients in their own homes when it is most convenient for them.

Also, because my smaller firm limits the number of cases we take, we are able to spend whatever time and expense is necessary to prosecute the case. I can set aside an afternoon to do nothing but sit and think about your case and how to prove it to a jury because I have made a conscious decision to not overwhelm my office with too many cases. No attorney is doing you a favor if they take your case but do a lousy job working on it.

Another significant difference between large firms and smaller firms, especially when it comes to medical malpractice, is that larger firms cannot afford to take on claims with lesser damages. Because of the massive overhead that goes along with operating a larger firm, they cannot justify the time and expense of representing clients with damages that may not be worth millions of dollars. Smaller firms, on the other hand, do not have as many mouths to feed.

Medical malpractice takes many forms and results in varying degrees of injury. You shouldn't be denied the right to recover simply because a big firm doesn't think you were hurt bad enough. Many smaller firms are able to offer you the representation you need, regardless of how bad your injury is.

So, if you've never actually met your big firm attorney, or you are tired of never getting past the secretary when you have questions about your case, then maybe its time to give a smaller, more personalized firm a chance.