Of all the complaints, excuses, and other remarks of regret that I hear within my Law Practice, the reader probably has no idea how many come from Clients who previously had a Lawyer, who is also a relative or family friend, handle a Criminal, DUI, or Driver’s License Restoration case. This is always within the context of the person explaining an outcome that was disappointing. This is usually followed by an explanation that the Lawyer relative or family friend wasn’t “really” a Criminal Attorney or DUI Lawyer, or otherwise said they could “do” a License Appeal.
And if that’s not enough, way too many of these people either try to make themselves feel better by telling me they got a real “break” on the Fees, or they express further regret because they not only didn’t get any kind of “break” on the Fees, but were instead “taken to the cleaners” by paying way too much for a Lawyer who didn’t really know what he or she was doing.
I specialize in License Restoration, DUI and Criminal cases. I don’t handle Murder or Rape cases, and there are loads of other types of cases that I will not accept. I only take on the kinds of cases that I know how to handle, and which I have handled before. The world would be a much better place if every Lawyer stuck to what they knew. I would never, for example, take on a Divorce case. And when I need Legal services, (in a Civil Lawsuit, for example), I hire a Lawyer who specializes in that field. I certainly have lots of “friends” who are Lawyers, but I know, firsthand, that in the Legal world, while you may not always “get what you pay for,” you will NEVER get what you DON’T pay for.
The situation I am describing most often arises when I am speaking with a new Client and I inquire about what appears to be a questionable result in a prior Criminal case. All too often, these people somehow wind up talking to a family member or a friend (or a friend of a friend) who is a Lawyer and who offers to help. As I noted above, these situations often devolve into one of two things:
- The Lawyer (in this case, usually a relative), offers to help, and means well, and even handles the case for free, or at a very reduced Fee, or
- The Lawyer, (in this scenario, often either a family friend or a friend of a friend) after being contacted, agrees to accept the case.
In the first situation, it is just luck, pure and simple, if the person in need of a Lawyer for a DUI, Criminal or License Appeal case happens to be related to a Lawyer who specializes in this field. Instead, Uncle Phil or Cousin Lisa all-too-often turns out to be some kind of General Practitioner, or a Lawyer who handles Divorces, or some field other than DUI or Criminal matters.
Yet, the well-meaning relative figures that they can handle it.
In the second situation, the family friend, or friend of a friend, likewise often turns out to be yet another well-intentioned Lawyer without the proper experience to really handle a DUI or Criminal case. Yet in far too many of these cases, or at least those that I encounter, instead of giving the person a real “break” on the price, the Lawyer either charge a full Fee, or even more.
In fact, I can honestly say that almost all the time I learn of someone getting “soaked” on Fees by a prior Lawyer, I see a second-rate result. It seems that while not everyone who pays a lot much gets a crappy result, everyone who gets a crappy result paid too much.
The larger point I’m trying to make is that it is almost always a huge mistake to get involved in a situation like this. Even in my own past (distant past, now that I’ve learned…), I’ve made the mistake of using a relative or friend for this or that (no details here…I don’t want to walk into an argument at the next barbeque or family gathering) and only lived to regret it.
It is worth repeating that many of these arrangements begin with the best of intentions. Yet my late mom used to say “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions…”
I have been on the other side of this equation, as the Lawyer. One thing about being a Lawyer, people will make jokes about us all day long, but won’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask us, as friends and family, about a legal predicament. Over the years, I have been called on countless times to help out. And the big problem is, when that happens, I want to help. Yet as I have learned, the hard way, really, the best help I can give is to point the person in the right direction.
Most of the family and friend calls that I get are for things outside the scope of my own Practice: Criminal, DUI and License Restoration cases. Therefore, when someone begins asking me, in a quiet voice, about a Divorce, or about whether they can sue their (sometimes former) employer, I can honestly and politely tell them that since I don’t handle anything like the kind of matter about which they’re calling me, I have no clue.
But I wasn’t always so smart. In years past, I did, at times, and against my better judgment and instinct, get wrapped up in cases that I should have left alone. I involved myself in fields in which I had no experience, and about which I really had no clue. I got on the phone with, and sat across the table from Lawyers who were working within their comfort zone, while I felt like a fish out of water, because I was. And to think that at the time, I was hoping they couldn’t tell that I was clueless.
Now, I can spot the family-friend or relative Lawyer in the conference room with the Prosecutor a mile away. Everything, and I mean everything about them screams “green.” Their body language, the way they approach the Prosecutor, how they speak, what questions, if any, they ask, and just about everything they do and don’t do makes it obvious to the trained eye.
Yet their family friend, or relative, sitting nervously in the Courtroom, or Court lobby, doesn’t have that trained eye. In fact, they very often think they’re in better than good hands, because of whatever “connection” brought them and their Lawyer together in the first place.
I tend to get angry with those Lawyers who see a call like this as an opportunity to make some good money without facing competition. In other words, if the Lawyer gets a call at home from his good friend asking if he can help out the caller’s co-worker, or cousin, or whatever, and the Lawyer knows that person won’t be doing any comparison shopping, they can just call them the next day, tell the person to make an appointment, and charge a nice Fee, no questions asked. In fact, the person will not only hand over the money, but will likely profusely thank the Lawyer for fitting them in and taking the case.
If the Lawyer happens to concentrate his or her Practice in the field in which the person needs help, then that’s fine. If, however, as is so often the case when someone needs Legal Representation for a DUI or Criminal case, the Lawyer is not a specialist in that field, but figures he or she can “wing it,” then they are, I think, doing far more of a disservice than a service.
I have often said that anyone hiring me is paying for my experience and knowledge, because I only accept cases in my fields of Practice, and only in the certain locales (all of Macomb and Oakland Counties, and part of Wayne County) in which I Practice. Thus, if I were to accept a case outside of my fields of expertise, or even if I were to take on a DUI case up north, my Client would be paying tuition for me to learn the ropes of some new field, or some new Court, with its different procedures. And I won’t do that.
Yet it’s a shame that some will, and will charge a fortune for it.
On the opposite side of the coin is that Lawyer, often a relative or close family friend, who accepts a case, with an honest desire to help out, on a reduced Fee (or even free), and has no idea what to do. These Lawyers, having a kinder heart, will often disclose right up front to the Prosecutor that they really don’t do DUI or Criminal cases. In License Restoration cases, they don’t have to say a word; their inexperience is obvious before the first word of the Hearing is spoken
The problem here is that there is MUCH more to a Criminal case than just meeting with the Prosecutor. The Prosecutor has not obligation, and no reason, really, to analyze a Defendant’s long-range life goals and plans, and evaluate how any particular resolution can impact that. It’s kind of like going to the Doctor for a sinus infection. Sure, anyone can figure that a anti-biotic prescription will be written, but when it comes to congestion relief, it is the Doctor’s obligation to advise a Patient on high-blood pressure medication, for example, that standard decongestants and nasal spray INCREASE blood pressure, and should be avoided, and instead instruct the Patient to use a medication designed for those on such medication, or otherwise treating for hypertension. If a person just called up their cousin, who is a Dentist, and asked for a prescription, they would not likely be made aware of this, and the results that followed might not be very good.
Yet the Lawyer needs to have a working, as in “I do this everyday” kind of understanding of what is involved in a Criminal or DUI case, and what consequences any particular or proposed resolution has for the person, and what can and cannot be done to avoid an/or minimize those consequences.
If the reader remembers the movie “My Cousin Vinny” starring Joe Pesci and Marissa Tomei, then the point I’m making should be clear, because, while the successful outcome in that movie was heartwarming (and unlikely for a novice Lawyer), even the movie was clear that Vinny more or less stumbled into it by accident.
There are valid business concerns, here, as well. I’ll be honest here; I run way too busy a practice to take on discount or free cases. I have a good steady income, but right behind it is a steady stream of expenses. I have payroll, rent, 5 phone lines, various insurances, equipment rentals, postage, internet, dues and about a hundred other things that come in month after month. It just makes no sense for me to use one of my precious time slots to not keep that income stream working.
And to be even more blunt about it, I guess I’m saying that any Lawyer who is even half as busy as me just cannot shoulder some freebie, or discount deal. Sure, I answer questions and help people out, but I just cannot go to Court and spend that kind of time and turn away paying work. Thus, anyone who takes on these kinds of cases is usually not really busy with their own work. This explains why my experience with this type of situation occurred when I was younger, and building a Practice, rather than more recently, now that I am fully engaged in and obligated to my Practice. If you want a top-notch Lawyer, you’re going to have to pay for one. If you get someone doing your case for free, or some ridiculously reduced fee, you’re undoubtedly getting exactly what you pay for.
In the end however, no matter how much money was or was not spent, it is the consequences, both short and long term, that matter. Thus, the person who had their friend’s brother handle a Traffic Ticket for free now learns he or she has to pay $500 per year to the State for 2 years for Driver Responsibility Fees because the Lawyer didn’t realize the deal he or she worked out would trigger that.
The kid who has his Divorce Lawyer cousin handle a Marijuana case, and is relieved to discover that he or she won’t be going to Jail, discovers double the disappointment when they learn that the charge could have been kept off of their Record, but the Lawyer didn’t know that, and now their Driver’s License is being Suspended and they have a Criminal Conviction that could have been avoided.
Sure, there are cases where these things don’t happen, and all ends well. Unfortunately, at first, in every one of these situations, it seems like that’s exactly what will happen, and no one has any objective reason to think differently. Yet in way too many of these circumstances, things don’t turn out so well, and this is why, at the outset of this article, I very candidly pointed out that:
Of all the complaints, excuses, and other remarks of regret that I hear, the reader probably has no idea how many come from having had a Lawyer who is a relative or family friend handle a DUI or Criminal case. This is always within the context of the person explaining an outcome that was disappointing. This is usually followed by an explanation that the Lawyer relative or family friend wasn’t “really” a Criminal Attorney or DUI Lawyer.
If there is a “moral to the story” here, it is something that I have repeated throughout my website and the articles on this blog; do your homework. Legal services are consumer services. Be a good consumer. Read the articles other Lawyers have written on the subject for which you need help. See who explains things clearly, and then, if you have other questions, pick up the phone and call the Office. Compare Offices. Was the Staff member who answered your call able to give you any information, or answer any of your questions? I always point out that anytime someone is in the market for a new TV or a new refrigerator, they will do some research. Shouldn’t you at least do as much research for a Lawyer whose abilities may impact the rest of your life as you would for these appliances?
No doubt, if a person took that single step, they’d usually find out that their friend’s brother who is a Lawyer, or their cousin, the Lawyer, is not the person for them. This is why I can confidently say that, when facing a Criminal charge or a DUI, or when a person needs a Driver’s License Restoration Lawyer, you may not always “get what you pay for,” you will NEVER get what you DON’T pay for.