Just a few days ago the legal blogosphere was abuzz with the news that a federal judge in Florida had ordered two bickering attorneys to settle their differences playground-style: with a game of rock, paper, scissors. The judge mockingly described it as a new form of alternative dispute resolution.
Last week blogger Ernie Svenson invited readers to take a sobering look at what this all portends for the contemporary U.S. legal system: “Hell, when a federal judge has to tell the attorneys to use a child’s game to resolve their disputes then you know the system is completely broken.”
He’s right of course. Personally I have to wonder what their clients had to say about this (particularly when they see the bill). And as an attorney myself I have to ask, is this really the best that these lawyers could offer? An arbitrary outcome resulting from mere chance, instead of a resolution based on law, reason, and clients’ needs? And is this the business model that attorneys really want to practice?
Surely this is the last thing lawyers need right now–public confirmation that lawyers are useless at resolving disputes. Lawyers have a serious image problem. And current business practices are keeping potential clients away.
Hell, they’re not just keeping clients away, they’re driving them off in hordes. Straight to us mediators.
If you’re interested in hearing what clients have to say about attorneys, gather round. I can tell you what they’re saying to mediators like me.
Many of the people I speak to who come to mediation do so because they see themselves as refugees fleeing from a tyrannical legal system. Often they arrive with stories of attorneys more concerned with racking up billable hours than helping clients conserve assets and maximize gains. Attorneys who insisted that they should “go for the jugular” when really all they wanted to do was to remain on friendly terms with a business partner, neighbor, or soon-to-be-former spouse. Attorneys who didn’t listen or railroaded them into decisions that they couldn’t live with later. Attorneys whose combative styles cost clients money and relationships.
I’m an attorney myself. Believe me, I know that legal advice can save people time, money, and aggravation, and protects them from making uninformed decisions or unwise choices. But despite my best efforts to counter these negative perceptions, these callers remain skeptical that attorneys have anything of value to offer them. They find it far easier to believe the worst of attorneys than the best.
Some of these stories I hear are based on speculation and conjecture — on the experiences of a friend of a friend of a friend, on third-and fourth-hand stories passed on from co-workers, acquaintances, distant relations. These are urban legends which gain power and credibility in the retelling and convince the listeners that attorneys are neither helpers nor healers.
However, what is sad for our profession is the fact that the vast majority of these stories are the result of direct, personal experience. They are real. They happened.
But regardless of the source of these perceptions, the fact is that attorneys have a huge public relations problem.
Sure, we can lay some of the blame on ambulance chasers and the tort reform crowd–they’re both in opposite camps but neither one of them is doing us any good. We can point our fingers at the media which regularly vilify attorneys and rarely report on the important contributions that attorneys make in the service of law and justice.
But there’s also personal responsibility as well. And we attorneys had better start taking a long, hard look at the way we serve our clients and what our business practices have to say about us and our profession.
Better yet, keep it up. Keep antagonizing those clients.
Mediators everywhere will be grateful for the business.