Thursday, April 2, 2009

Legal industry hit hard by recession; so there is justice in the world; change in billable hour a must for industry beyond public oversight

The New York Times reports today on how the Great Recession is hitting America's law firms hard, which shows there is some justice in the world.

American Lawyer is calling it “the fire this time” and warning that big firms may be hurtling toward “a paradigm-shifting, blood-in-the-suites” future. The Law Shucks blog has a “layoff tracker,” and it is grim reading. Top firms are rapidly thinning their ranks, and several — including Heller Ehrman, a venerable 500-plus-lawyer firm founded in 1890 — have closed.

The employment pains of the legal elite may not elicit a lot of sympathy in the broader context of the recession, but a lot of hard-working lawyers have been blindsided, including young associates who are suddenly finding themselves with six-figure student-loan debts and no source of income.

No sympathy here. The legal profession has the least oversight of the estates supposedly supporting society. And too many attorneys and judges have used this lack of transparency to rip off the public, mostly when people can least afford it and are hurting and children are involved, such as in divorce cases.

And that's were the infamous billable hour comes in.

Always ask for billable hours from your attorney throughout the period of representation. You need to see what you are being charged for -- the most and least. For instance, only use e-mail to communicate and have all your questions in the e-mail. Each time you bother them, you get charged. Electronic communication is the least expensive.

I requested my billable hours from a Williamson County divorce attorney I fired for getting my divorce case into the courts and to a hearing. In divorce, staying out of court and before a judge are the primary aim. The attorney had used up all of my $3,000 retainer, and the document I requested said I owed $30.

So if I had met with her for a billable hour for us to set our strategy for the bad advice she had given me that got me in court, that would have cost $300. Waiting on the judge and then the hearing would have cost $600. And getting past that obstacle was not even approaching mediation or any resolution, which would have cost another $4,000 at the minimum.

Then, if the judge was crazy(or corrupt), which is a distinct possibility from divorce cases I've been hearing about across this state and across the nation, then the cost would have multiplied many times.

In divorce court, the biggest problem too often is not what the law says but whether the judge likes you and what he or she says the laws says about your case. And you can even be jailed for exercising your First Amendment rights. Then if the judge and the attorney opposing you have a strong bar association relationship, then you may have another set of problems.

Our Founding Fathers would be shocked, I hope.

Thankfully, my wife and I have gone about negotiating and completing our case outside of billable hours. She has kept her attorney to simply review our agreements and give advice, and then file with the courts what we agree on.

We've ultimately agreed that it is better that these thousands of dollars go to her than the legal industry profiting from divorce and keeping sides angry at each other. We must quit feeding the beast with accusations and counter-accusations.

You can see how easily the legal industry surrounding divorce cases makes its money, big-time. So to hear it is being hit hard is sweet music and deserved justice. May this recession last 1,000 years.

And attorneys, touched by a brief moment of decency, are re-looking at the fairness of the billable hour and perhaps, just perhaps, basing their pay on the success of their representation -- not getting you in court like my fired attorney. (She still defended her representation as "competent". Doesn't everyone want a competent attorney instead of a good one?)

The Times reports of changes that MIGHT sweep the legal industry if this recession lasts long enough, beginning with big corporate clients, not peons like us:

Clients are also likely to benefit — and consumers, since legal fees are built into the cost of almost everything. Even before the downturn, big-firm clients, led by the Association of Corporate Counsel, were pushing to phase out the billable hour — which can go as high as $1,000. Tight corporate budgets will give clients more leverage to push to pay by the project or for successful outcomes.

Change can be good.

Sometimes, only hard times can force institutions to recognize others instead of only its perpetuation and power.

There are good attorneys and judges out there. I personally know many of them including my oldest brother and good friends and advocates. But attorneys cannot speak out against bad judges or they would lose their income before that court. Judges are not going to turn in their colleagues. That would make for ill feelings at bar association gatherings.

I was introduced to the legal system at 12 years of age when my father was tried for federal offenses in Oklahoma City. He was exonerated bu a jury because of an honest federal judge and a young attorney with brains and bravado. Dad had simply made the mistake of being a very successful civil service manager at the local Air Force Base -- and a Mexican-American. The Solicitor General's office had cleared him. But the local U.S. attorney went ahead and put our family through Hell.

But we were actually lucky and blessed.

If mom and dad had not been able to take out a second mortgage on the home they were buying, and if the young brash attorney had not been able to get my father's case shifted to a more liberal judge, I could very well have been raised by only my mother during my teen years. That means I would not have had my writing career, nor this blog to write.

Life should not come so close to disaster, particularly in our legal system. A lot of money is needed for justice.

From personal experience and communication with regular people, evidence is mounting of the corrupt nature of the divorce industry and the gross lack of oversight in states like Tennessee. Here, a former judge serves as the gatekeeper for public complaints at state commission. So few complaints survive. And this immorality continues because we don't speak up and demand our rights from the legal system that belongs to us, not the bar association.

While we should pray for the Great Recession to ease on this nation, it would be better if it continues on the legal industry, to force some contrition along with draining its pocketbooks filled by so many years of hurting people and their children more than helping them.

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