How many lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Lawyers are the worst. I’ve said this (somewhat in jest) many times myself, and I know most of you have said it at some point too. At their best, lawyers are trusted counselors, protectors, and problem solvers. At their worst, they are a bunch of other things. For your late summer entertainment, I’ve pulled together a few of my favorite bad lawyer stories, care of the All Places community.
Many of our clients find their way to us after one (or more) really awful experiences with other attorneys. And many of my friends are lawyers who have themselves had terrible interactions with their colleagues, opposing counsel, or outside counsel. These little vignettes represent an amalgamation of the types of stories I’ve heard over and over again. Once you read them, it will probably be pretty obvious that more than one person has had this experience, because chances are you’ve gone through at least one of them yourself.
Scene 1: "We’d love to represent you, sir." A female CEO and her male employee walk into a lawyer’s office. The lawyer proceeds to direct his entire pitch at the male employee, thinking (wrongly) that he is the CEO and the decision-maker. Female CEO quietly listens and then leaves office in search of new counsel.
Scene 2: "The documents speak for themselves." A founder is ready to conduct a round of fundraising. She gets on a call with her law firm to discuss the fundraising process, to which the lawyers respond that they will prepare the documents but provide no guidance on how the process works. The lawyers then prepare a set of virtually indecipherable documents and wish the founder the best of luck.
Scene 3: "I have some questions about my bill." A founder has been working with a firm for a few weeks to get a new company up and running. At the end of the month, without any advance notice from the attorney, she receives a bill that contains: work she never received, work she never requested, and a balance due that is 100% over budget. When she asks counsel about the bill he tells her things just took longer than they expected.
Scene 4: "Thanks, Ashley." A female lawyer has been working on a transaction for a number of months. Throughout the process, she receives messages from the lawyer on the other side: “Thank you, Ashley” “Can you take care of this, Ashley” “Can you schedule this, Ashley.” You guessed it, her name's not Ashley. You’d think the fact that her emails arrived in his inbox under another name would have been a dead giveaway.
Scene 5: "Will you just talk to me?" This is the question I get most often from the recently-burned. It seems there is an epidemic of lawyers refusing to speak directly to their clients. I’d imagine this is a combination of: delegating work to junior associates who aren’t able to answer questions; senior lawyers themselves doing work that they can’t explain; discomfort speaking on the phone (I’m not sure you knew this, but lawyers tend to be an unsocialized bunch); and not valuing the client.
Then there are the oldies but goodies: taking summer associates to strip clubs (thank you, COVID, for limiting this one); male partners lecturing female attorneys about their clothes or shoes; berating you when you tell them you’re leaving; being told a client wants to work with an attorney with more “gravitas”; and being asked if you're “screwing things up” because your pregnant.
In defense of the legal industry, few lawyers are formally trained in real service. We are trained to sit at our computers, conduct research, draft documents, and bill lots of hours. We are taught that “exceptional service” means exceptional legal work that we create at our desks and then gets passed along to some theoretical client entity. When there finally comes a time that a genuine flesh and blood client is revealed from behind the curtain, you can forgive us for fumbling around a bit. Of course, at a certain point, most lawyers do realize they’re in a client service industry and either educate themselves on what good service is or, more often, don’t. I’ve had the pleasure of working with many other attorneys who fall into that former category, including many of the lawyers on this email list. They’re out there.
You know what really motivates you to provide excellent service? Running your own firm and seeing your salary and your employees’ salaries directly tied to how happy your clients are (and thus how often they call you again or refer you to their peers). Still, we can all do better. Our clients deserve it. Many of them are doing things that are critically important to this world and should be receiving service commensurate with their contribution.
I’m going to close this one out with a quote from one of the all-time great lawyer shows, Better Call Saul: “How many lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb? One to climb a ladder, one to shake it, and one to sue the ladder company.”
--Jessie M. Gabriel