Monday, May 13, 2013

Legal Urban Legend Myth Buster #4



Back in "the old days," there would only be a few attorneys in town. If a youngster hung up a shingle, chances are he grew up in the town and knew those attorneys. The young attorney would join the local civic groups and take his place in society. By doing so, the young attorney would be in the mix of things and the business community would feel comfortable with him. There was no pressure on anyone because there was lots of work to go around.

That model really doesn't work so well anymore. Consider that there are 1,268,011 active attorneys in the United States versus a total U.S. resident population of 315,816,000 (2013 statistics). This means there is an active attorney to resident population ratio of 1:249. That's a lot of attorneys for not a lot of people.

Ever hear of six degrees of separation? I guess if you were a glass-half full kind of person you would think that you are six degrees away from being Kevin Bacon's attorney. The reality is that today's legal market saturation is so great that just about everybody has an attorney in their family or already knows an attorney. By way of example, on the blue collar residential street where I grew up on, in the five houses on my parents' side of the street among the kids I grew up with, there was one law student who dropped out after the first year, four kids who grew up to be attorneys and seven who did other things in life. So, like 1/3 of the kids on one stretch of the street grew up to be attorneys. 

I hate to break the news but joining a local community group probably isn't going to get you any paying work. Chances are there are already a bunch of attorneys that belong to the group and they won't be too receptive to your not too subtle attempt to poach their contacts. What you probably will end up with is a bunch of non-paying work for the group itself. After all, no one else in the group gets paid so why should you? To the extent you join this group and become friends with the people in it, any time these friends call you with a legal problem, they will expect the legal work to be done for free. I can also guarantee you that if they don't get the outcome they expect, they will trash you within the group and say you are not a good attorney; if they do get the outcome they expect, they will think it was obvious and they shouldn't have to pay you as a result. Any time you do legal work for a friend, relative, or member of a group you belong to, expect no money and social problems as a result.

As an aside, when you join a local community group, don't be surprised if you become unpopular in a hurry. Chances are unless there is another attorney already in the group, the group has not been following any standard business practices. Probably "Good Old Joe" has been the treasurer for twenty years and no one has seen a bank statement that entire time and no one really understands Old Joe's financial statements. Probably even though the group seems to do well at its fundraisers it always seems to be low on funds. Probably you as an attorney will want to sort this out. Probably things will come apart for the group once you start pursuing that. Probably the group will fall apart and blame you. So, think hard before you join any group and disrupt "Good Old Joe's" management.

The myth that "young attorneys just need to get out there, join some community groups and get some work out of it" is BUSTED.


  1. Again, spot on: as I young attorney I joined countless civic groups, made presentations at 6:30am breakfast meetings, made presentations before professional groups and it got me $0. Each meeting ended with numerous attendees approaching me and thanking me, and then asking "do you know John Smith? He's my cousin/best friend/fellow church member." Often the people had a whole laundry list of friends/relatives/spouses/children/fellow Rotarians, etc who were attorneys. So there was a good reason nobody ever hired me-everyone knew not one, but several lawyers.

  2. This article is very true. Years ago I used to join groups of business people related to my practice area. They would not be saturated with lawyers. Fast forward to today. There are several lawyers in these groups and some are leading the groups. There is no place to turn to try to get business that is not saturated with lawyers.

    Furthermore, associations of business people that realize their members may provide access to legal work often charge a membership fee of several thousand dollars a year for access. Of course, only the biggest law firms can afford this, and only their lawyers end up being invited to network in these useful business groups.

  3. I once attended an alumni luncheon for the graduates' association of a maritime school. The lunchtime topic was largely school related, but touched on industry. I went as the invited guest (a friend) of one of the alums; I also happen to be an attorney. Turned out that about 5 alums were present and none were attorneys (though I think one had a brother who was one) --at the same time, 8 other attorneys who had no relation with the school were also present.

    Bottom line, attorneys outnumbered alums by nearly two to one. This was several years ago, when it was said the legal market was saturated. Today, it's hyper-saturated.

  4. Yes, when I first hung my shingle, I met with an insurance agent and wrote him a check. He then called me up and said that a local group he belonged to needed an attorney to negotiate a contract with the township for a museum that they were establishing. He assured me that the group had so much money that was not being used they were afraid the IRS was going to come after them. So I worked on negotiating this contract and spent numerous hours on it. I was repeatedly assured by several board members that I would be paid. The insurance agent board member then left abruptly after filing for divorce from his wife (no, he didn't use me for it.) I then sent a very reasonable bill to the group for under $1,000. I went to the next meeting to discuss where the agreement stood. One board member glared at me and said, "No one here is getting paid." And sure enough they would not honor the invoice.

    I know another young attorney who joined a different group after being recruited by this woman who was the treasurer. He discovered that she was embezzling money because no one was following protocols. So then he spent hours trying to negotiated a return of the money, etc. Then he quit because everyone was fingering pointing.

    I've regretted every group I've ever joined. Now I stay out of them.

  5. As a young attorney, be very careful about the people who approach you to join their "community organization." When I first started out, I was approached by churches, local politicians and real estate brokers. The churches asked me to do a pro bono case before they endorsed me to the parishioners. I remember I took an asylum case before the immigration court. At the individual hearing, the client changed his story to an unbelievable tale that the judge stopped the respondent's testimony, yelled at him for insulting the court's intelligence and ordered him removed. The church's deacon said that since I lost that case, he could not in good conscience recommend me to his parish. I spent about 120 hours on that pro bono case. In the end, I got nothing for it.

    The local Congressman contacted me through a liaison. I was told that for every case they referred me, I would have to kick back an envelope with cash to a bagman. I was terrified about this arrangement so I turned it down. The scary thing is that this Congressman now sits in the U.S. Senate.

    Lastly, the real estate broker promised me 20-30 closings a month provided I charge only $500 a case and waived attorney review and inspections. Basically, she wanted me to jeopardize my law license and bust my ass for chump change.

    Oh, and this was 18 years ago. I cannot imagine how difficult it is to break into this business as a solo today, especially with every Tom, Dick and Harry, Esquire with a billboard advertisement on I-95.

    1. Can you tell us the Senator's name, or at least the state?

      (sorry for the double post).

    2. Churches are the worst. Few are "well-capitalized" by elders/deacons or members who truly give generously out of their abundance and the blessings they have received. Some of the curches who do have cash are publicly generous but privately stingy and make you jump through all sorts of orthodoxy-hoops before they will actually "help" anyone. They try to have it both ways by being non-profits in the eyes of the law, yet somehow living outside the actual world of supply and demand for services where everyone else has to live 24/7.

      No surprise that they esentially post-facto demanded a guaranteed outcome and 120 hours of free labor from you, over something which you had no ultimate control. Clearly you didn't try hard enough, or pray hard enough, or something.

      Would they do the same with a plumber or an electrician? Nope. But, you were doing "God's work", you see, and that is payment enough. You should look to Jesus' example of living with next to nothing - prayer and fasting is good for the soul.

      Now, can we sign you up for a love-offering pledge...?

    3. I agree with dupednontraditional. No one follows proper business practices in churches then something always happens then the attorney has to fix it for free. Or the low-wage employees have problems and the minister asks you to fix it for free. Or destitute people show up at the church for hand outs and the minister gives them your number and assures them you can fix it for free. See a pattern? Church communities are so needy that they can actually bring your practice down unless you put up significant barriers. If you do put up the barriers, then you aren't considered really part of the church. No win.

  6. I think you have to pick your spots very carefully. Groups of professionals really aren't the way to go. Everyone in my area has begged me to join the Rotary or Kiwanis. I look at the membership rosters and its 1/3 attorneys. Why would I ever want to join these? No way you get a dime of business for years. Same with other large community groups like churches.

    I do think it's possible to build a reputation this way, especially if you choose smaller groups and generally enjoy what they do. Business will come as an ancillary result down the line. That's not much comfort for the struggling solo, but it's something.

    The anecdote about in-fighting and improprieties is dead-on, though. You fish around any small group with money long enough, and you'll find someone doing something "off."

  7. Cmon, who was the congressman.... at least tell us the State.... or first letter of a last name!

    You shoulda recorded the conversation and brought him down!


    1. The poster mentioned Interstate 95. That eliminates a lot of states. Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhodes Island, Connecticut, New York, on down to Florida. Also said it was a male and that he used to be in the House of Representatives. Make a list of Senators and start eliminating suspects.

      In the first five states starting in Maine only two of five Senators are men who previously served in the House.

    2. You can narrow it down to about a dozen possibilities using Wikipedia.

    3. Or the guy can just tell us and save us the trouble of working out a dozen maybes!

      I'd bet it was one of the NJ senators...both males, both in Congress a while, both a bit dodgy in a dodgy state.


  8. "The local Congressman contacted me through a liaison. I was told that for every case they referred me, I would have to kick back an envelope with cash to a bagman. I was terrified about this arrangement so I turned it down. The scary thing is that this Congressman now sits in the U.S. Senate. "

    With all due respect, I find this very hard to believe. Do I think that Congressmen would take kickbacks? Of course, especially by the legal way, lobbying or campaign contributions, but do I think they would seek kickbacks from just anybody, without discernment . . placing their very freedom at risk? Not on your life.

    Which gets to my point that although I fully agree with many of the myths exposed here, you have to be careful with the anecdotal evidence offered by the comments. Sometimes people are so embittered, they will say anything.

  9. That's because all the groups have stated missions to do stuff without making money.

    Go to the pool hall, and join a group of beer drinkers and pool hustlers. You'll find work there.

  10. Here's a clue-

    The US has far more lawyers per capita than any other country:

    (Data is out-of-date, but current figures would almost certainly be worse)

    A highly competitive profession has gone from over-supply to
    hopeless glut for 80-90% of all graduates.