Interview conducted by Tom Dyson and Christian Hill for The Palm Beach Letter on May 6th, 2011
Tom: How do I find a good lawyer?
Mark: Is that a trick question?
Mark: Well, let me ask you something. What do you call a good lawyer who’s gone bad?
Tom: But seriously…
Mark: No seriously, what do you call 5,000 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
Tom: A good start?
Mark: Okay, I’ll be serious now. A good lawyer is someone who doesn’t charge much.
Tom: That doesn’t sound like a serious answer.
Mark: But it is. What most people don’t understand about lawyers is that their primary business is billing you for all you are worth.
Tom: That’s pretty cynical.
Mark: Let me tell you a story. One time, a friend of mine, a lawyer, took over his wife’s divorce business for two weeks while she was traveling. (She was also a lawyer.) He met with a half dozen of her clients. They all wanted to spend hours bitching about their husbands. He listened politely for ten or twenty minutes and then said, “Let’s cut to the chase. This is a 50/50 state. You are not going to get any more than 50% from him, even if you think he’s a scumbag.” And he felt proud. He had saved them wasted billing hours. But when his wife came back she found irate messages from her clients waiting for her. Her clients were upset because they weren’t getting the bitching time they wanted. What they wanted was the therapeutic effect of having their husbands pay for legal sessions in which the lawyer helped them imagine totally bankrupting their spouses, even though it was not a possibility.
Tom: That may be true of divorce lawyers, but not all lawyers, surely. I mean, what about her husband? Wasn’t he honest?
Mark: He was an honest lawyer. But he realized that honesty has no place in the legal profession. So he got out and became a businessman.
Tom: What about commercial lawyers? Surely you need them if you want to do business.
Mark: You need legal documents. But you don’t need to pay big dollars for 90% of what you hire lawyers to do. Much of the work commercial lawyers perform can be done (and often is done) by their legal secretaries. There is little commercial work that requires a great deal of expertise. And when it does, most high-priced lawyers are no more competent than low-priced lawyers. In fact, in my experience, the expensive lawyer will take longer to come to the wrong conclusion. I’d rather pay $150 than $450 for questionable advice.
Tom: What about lawyers who defend you from serious problems like civil suits or even government or criminal law suits?
Mark: I’ll tell you what these lawyers do. First, they tell you that you have been victimized by the system and that you shouldn’t be punished. Filled with hope, you agree to hire them. Then they spend lots of time reviewing your documents and talking to the other lawyers about your case. Then they get back to you. Even though it is unfair, they say your predicament is bad. There is a good chance you will be put in the electric chair. Your only hope is to turn over your entire bank account to them.
You agree. Then they review your documents again and talk more to the other lawyers—and bill you for everybody’s time. Before long, you are broke. Then they settle the case. What you find out later is that the settlement had already been agreed upon at the first meeting—while you still had plenty of money in your bank account.
Tom: So, what are you saying? That all lawyers are bad?
Mark: I didn’t say that. Shakespeare did.
Tom: You’ve never had a good experience?
Mark: Yes, I have. In fact, I’ve had several. One is with my local real estate guy. He charges me $150 an hour and does everything quickly and efficiently. He is honest. I’m happy with him. The other is with the attorney who handles my movie-making business. She’s a real expert, an amazing negotiator, and she takes care of me like I’m a member of her family. She gets the most complicated stuff done in no time at all. I can sign her invoices without even looking at them, because I know they will always be reasonable.
Tom: So, how do you find a good lawyer?
Mark: The first rule: never hire a lawyer because someone has told you he is “the best in the business.” That means he is extremely expensive and knows a hundred ways to rack up his fees. Unless you are a celebrity (in which case helping you out will be a credit to him), there’s a good chance the fancy lawyer will sell you down the river while he’s charging you huge fees.
The second rule: never hire a lawyer whose office is bigger and nicer than your home. A lawyer’s office is like a casino. The nicer it looks, the worse it is for you. Someone’s got to pay for that fancy furniture. That someone is you.
And my third rule is this: control their time. Get them to give you a fixed price in advance. If you can’t do that, then get them to give you an estimate, and lean on them to keep to it.
I only interview lawyers who have been recommended by friends. And then I won’t hire them unless I like them, unless I feel like I’d want to hang out with them.
One final bit of advice most people don’t know: you can negotiate a legal bill if you think it’s too high. Little guys don’t do this, but big clients do. All the time.
Tom: So, are lawyers good for anything?
Mark: Sure, they make used car salesmen look good