This article was originally posted in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on Tuesday, April17, 2012
PUBLISHER: MICHAEL B. KRAMER | EDITOR: OLIVIA CLARKE
Injury Lawyers face more than our fair share of jokes. Many of them we deserve. However, most lawyers that I have come across have been skilled at what they do.
They are well-trained, decent people, doing their best for the people or companies they represent. Of course, I have seen my fare share of “bad apples” too. I write this article because I’m concerned that in the coming years I may see a lot more of these “apples.” Frankly, I’ve seen bushels more than usual in the last few years. I focus my practice on personal injury matters. My training started during law school when I worked as a clerk at a well-known personal injury law firm.
Later, when I received my law license, I got a job at another top-notch personal injury firm and went through many years of extensive training. I heard of the times, though I’m not sure they ever existed, when handling personal injury cases was simple and could be dealt with as a fairly unsophisticated matter. However, the law controlling the rights and duties of parties to personal injury litigation has become quite complicated and has been extremely unstable since I popped onto the law scene nearly twenty years ago. I assume the generation of lawyers before mine might say the same thing. The responsibilities of attorneys handling tort cases have also increased considerably. I’ve been told by my non-personal injury lawyer friends and peers that the same applies to their practices. Therefore, this article is for all lawyers, not just my friendly competitors in the tort arena.
Presently, most lawyers in various specialties feel the pinch of our current economy. Many of the commercial firms have taken a hit and the people in the tort litigation world have seen their case volume decrease quite considerably. The economy has forced most lawyers to change in one way or another. Some of us have taken the road of becoming smarter lawyers – to find ways to do more with less and for less.
However, not all lawyers have taken this approach. I find many lawyers in this economy have decided to take on cases that they shouldn’t. I call this “dabbling.” An inspiration for this article is a “dabbler” I know. He’s a lawyer who used to handle tons of residential real estate closing hundreds a year- for many years. He started his career working for a real estate lawyer who mentored him for many years before he started his own real estate practice. He was excellent in the world of real estate law and thrived for many years. He knew what he knew – real estate – and knew when to get help with what he didn’t know – all other areas of the law. He would refer non-real estate cases to other lawyers.
A handful of years ago, along with the real estate market, his real estate practice started to decline.
Though he didn’t need to work for financial reasons anymore, he still had the drive to do so. Therefore, he started taking on non-real estate cases, cases he used to refer to guys like me. He took on a personal injury case in which two young men were struck by a small truck. The men suffered moderate injuries so he figured he could get the matter settled without much work and certainly without litigation. He diaried a two year statute of limitations, sat on the file for over a year while his clients healed from their injuries, collected medical records and bills and then made attempts to get the case settled. What he didn’t realize was the at-fault driver was a village employee, driving a village truck and the statute of limitations was only one year.
Now, after a long decorated career as a real estate lawyer, without as much as a claim being filed against him, he will likely be sued, all because he was “dabbling.” I’m sure many lawyers, similar to this one, who know or should know they are not the right person to handle a particular legal matter, do anyways. I know I’ve had my own chances to “dabble.” For example, I have been asked to handle real estate closings, divorces and commercial litigation matters. Despite some unhappy friends and family members, I’m proud to say I’ve declined each and every temptation to “dabble.”
Another point of inspiration for this article are the many law students I come across. In teaching Advanced Trial Advocacy at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, I see many enter law school with high ideals. By the time graduation approaches, most students realize there is a larger supply of lawyers than the demand for them. Therefore, many law students contemplate starting their own law practices out directly out of law school. I have seen law school graduates pursue this path and I urge students to understand this is a bad idea.
Becoming a good lawyer, in my opinion, means properly exposing yourself to good lawyering, on a daily basis, for many years.
Ask any good lawyer and you’ll find that they apprenticed to someone really good, maybe several someone’s. Without such exposure, lawyers are unprepared to accept the personal and professional rigors of being a lawyer. Not only is the lawyer who never was mentored well missing out, but suffering even more are the clients who hire lawyers who never performed an apprenticeship. “Dabblers” and untrained or poorly trained lawyers, in addition to doing a disservice to their clients, damage the legal profession. We should do all we can to discourage such folks who dabble and/or lack proper training from taking on unfamiliar legal matters. The legal profession has been negatively perceived for many years. I believe each lawyer has a responsibility to try and change this perception for society to see us as we deserve to be seen: as people who provide valuable services to society. Of course, there will always be some highly skilled specialists who are unprincipled and self-indulgent, despite their advanced skill sets. There is probably nothing we can do about these “bad apples.” However, I do think there’s something that can be done about the “dabblers” and improperly trained lawyers. If not, in the coming years, it’s going to be “hog heaven” for the legal malpractice lawyers.
Matthew L. Willens is the founder of Willens Law Offices, a personal injury law firm. Willens has a unique understanding of the dynamics of serious injury and wrongful death cases because he has experience from both sides of the aisle.