Advice from a Small Firm Lawyer (in 1941)
To help with my bar association’s History Project I recently read Before the Colors Fade: Some Reminiscences by William C. Porter, Esq. Beyond an interesting history of the Washington County Bar Association, the booklet paints an interesting picture of the practice of law from 1940 to 1980. Most interesting, Mr. Porter ends the thirty-five page booklet with advice that was as true then as it is now.
Don’t Take Bad Cases or Clients
This is advice we have heard here before. And it is advice that many new or struggling lawyers have neglected. Like so many others, I have also fallen victim to the temptation of a bad case or client. Luckily I only made that mistake once or twice early in my practice. It seems like a lesson that many need to learn on their own. But to those who can learn from others, Mr. Porter offers his advice on the subject:
The young lawyer starting out is tempted to accept any item of business that comes through the door. He gets the cases that have been peddled around, and the clients of whom other lawyers have washed their hands. A lawyer does well to resolve, and stick to the resolution, never to accept any case from which another lawyer has withdrawn, for whatever reason. And a corollary to that is — don’t take on a client who comes to you and tells you that the reason he is seeing you is that he isn’t satisfied with what his present lawyer is doing. He won’t be satisfied with you either.
It’s the client whose business is the most irritating and the least lucrative who is the readiest to call you at home at night or on the weekend. Short of having an unlisted home number (which I am inclined to recommend even though I don’t have one), there is no guaranteed way to keep from getting business calls at home, but the practice certainly should be discouraged, maybe by telling the client that you do business only at the office and only during office hours. I could never understand why a lawyer would deliberately encourage calls at home, by putting in the telephone directory his office number, and then “if no answer”, his home number. No lawyer should be that hungry.
Don’t Let Clients Manage Your Schedule
I don’t follow this particular bit of advice. I think, to some extent, it is important to accomodate your clients’ schedules. But Mr. Porter disagrees:
Don’t spoil the client by letting him accomodate your schedule to his. When a client tells me he can’t come during the daytime because he works in the daytime, my answer is: “So do I.” If his business is important enough to require your attention, it’s important enough for him to take time off from what he’s doing and come in at your convenience, not his.
Put Everything in Writing
This is much easier today than it was in the middle of the twentieth century. With e-mail and digital files, keeping notes and correspondence for everything should be easy. But that isn’t always the case. Clients call with questions or concerns, and the natural tendency is to answer those questions on the phone. A good habit (which I need to improve) is to follow most substantive phone conversations with a letter or e-mail. This memorializes the conversation for future reference. But Mr. Porter takes it a step further and encourages lawyers to ask their clients to put things in writing:
Try to do as little business as possible by telephone. Not only does the letter provide a written record of what was said, but the telephone is in general an irritating invention of the devil. About twenty-five years ago, there as a telephone company strike, and we had no telephone service at all in Washington for about one week. It was the most pleasant and tranquil week of my life.
What is more depressing than to come back to your office from a day in Court or a day out of town to find your desk a sheaf of telephone message slips, none of which contain any information or leave any message, all of which simply say “Call me back”? I have tried to make it a practice, when somebody calls and recites to me by telephone some problem on which he needs guidance, to ask him to sit down and write me a letter, telling me what he has just told me on the telephone. Not only does this enable me to have some written statement of the problem, but it also makes it possible to stall the mater off for a few days till the letter gets written, and that’s all to the good. It may never get written, and maybe that’s all to the better.
Keep a Clean Desk
My partner can’t even believe I’m passing this advice along, since I disregard it so willingly.
Nothing gets easier to do while it is put off or pushed aside. I have always tried to answer every item of correspondence the day it is received. I almost always prepare my Defendants’ Pre-Trial Statement the same day that I receive the Plaintiffs’. It’s just as easy that way, easier in fact. It should be one of the principal aims in every lawyer’s life to get as many things as he can, as fast as he can, off his desk and onto the desk of someone else.
Don’t Be Too General a Practitioner
Like many others today, Mr. Porter advocates a more narrow practice. He doesn’t necessarily advocate a niche practice, but warns against trying to do it all:
No lawyer can juggle (though I have seen some try) a schedule which includes criminal arraignments and pleas, workmen’s compensation petitions, P.U.C. applications, estate accounts, title searches, domestic relations hearings, landlord and tenant disputes, personal injury litigation, justice of the peace proceedings, divorces, zoning hearings, civil rights claims and real estate closings.
Nobody can know all about all those things, and a lawyer does his clients a disservice and puts himself in danger by spreading himself that thin. He compounds the problems if he tries to do all these things not only in this county, but in adjoining counties as well. Learn to know what you can do, what you like to do, and what you are proficient in. Confine yourself to doing those things, and let the other things be done by someone else.