Legally Speaking: How to Know if Your Lawyer Is Terrible

Photo: Luca Bertolli/123rf

Just because someone passed the bar exam and is licensed by the state doesn’t mean that person is good at their job. Here are five ways to know if your lawyer is simply terrible, which you can tell even if you aren’t a lawyer with the know-how to evaluate legal work.

They Can’t Explain the Why
So many attorneys are on autopilot. These attorneys rely on how they were taught to do a task and they have no idea why they are doing it that way. They only know how to regurgitate the process. They say things like, “This is the way I like to do it,” or, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years this way,” or, “This is the way it’s done,” while insisting that they can’t be questioned–such nonsense.

These attorneys aren’t strategists. They don’t see the big picture of their client’s goals. They just perform tasks, but have no idea how to shift from their task when a new issue emerges. These attorneys freak out whenever anything comes up. They don’t get adrenalin; they are filled with anxiety. These attorneys are plain and simply memorizers with no ability to use deductive reasoning. They aren’t professionals; instead, they are computers from the 1990s, and just like the ’90s, they are now obsolete. Clients need an attorney that is agile, who can shift on a dime and can explain the why. So, always be brave to ask your attorney why and if you don’t like the answer, fire them.

No Charisma
Lawyers need charm, swagger and a million-dollar smile. After all, isn’t a lawyer supposed to be the best representation of the client’s vision of themselves? Don’t you find so many lawyers to be boring, dull and contrarians? Is that a reflection of you? If you don’t like your lawyer, on a personal basis, how will any other professional like them throughout your entire representation? If no one likes them, how can they get anything done for you? Lawyers should know how to walk on water because their job is to pull a rabbit out of a hat. If your case can win itself, why do you need a lawyer in the first place? So, if talking to your lawyer is like watching paint dry, fire them.

Missing Cost / Benefit Analysis for Decision Making
My mother taught me that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to lawyering, ‘can’ is a legal question, while ‘should’ is a cost-effectiveness question. Terrible lawyers are tone deaf; rarely listening to what their client is really asking. When it comes to the ‘should,’ they only know how to linearly answer the ‘can.’ Even worse, if they do answer the ‘should,’ they presuppose their own personal values and budget on their clients without realizing that different clients have different circumstances and therefore have different ‘should’ answers. So, if your attorney doesn’t answer your legal questions through a two-part process of first, an answer to the legal viability and then, with an answer to the cost-effectiveness of proceeding with factors tailored to your circumstance, fire them.

No Conviction for Their Position
Ninety-three percent of a negotiation is how you say it, not what you say. So, wouldn’t your attorney believing what they are saying be 93% of everything? Too many lawyers don’t realize that their first job is to be an actor. They need to act like someone who believes that you are right irrespective if you are wrong. Yes, they should tell you the cost / benefit analysis of proceeding with your position first, but once you, the client, determines that you’d like to proceed, the attorney better get on board fast. In fact, getting on board fast is simply not good enough. Instead, your attorney needs to be the captain of your ship, willing to brave the high seas, while steering your case to Victory Island. If your attorney is not 100% confident that you are right, even when you are wrong, fire them.

They Are Sloppy
A picture is worth a thousand words and if your attorneys’ office is sloppy so are they. Even if your attorney’s office is organized, it has to be paperless. If they have stacks of papers everywhere, they are wasting their time billing you while they could just be accessing your file on a computer. Beyond files, if their shirt isn’t pressed, their shoes aren’t shined, and their hair isn’t combed, you can be assured that their document formatting is terrible, their articulation of the issues is rambling and their satisfaction of deadlines is non-existent. So, yes, be superficial and if your attorney doesn’t look like a million bucks, fire them.

In New York State, you are the boss and you can easily fire your attorney and hire a new attorney. If you paid your attorney through a contingency, it’s up to your new attorney to address the allocation of the fee with the outgoing attorney; it’s not your problem. On a flat fee invoice, if the job is incomplete, you can request a partial refund and use it to retain your new attorney. On an hourly bill, once you stop requesting services, the bill is over; it’s that simple.

In summary, you are entitled to an attorney who can explain the why to you, who has charisma, who understands the cost-benefit analysis, who believes in your case and looks like a million bucks. If that isn’t your attorney, it’s time for new counsel.

Andrew M. Lieb, Esq., MPH, is the managing attorney of Lieb at Law P.C. and a contributing writer for Behind the Hedges.