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Being a Lawyer is No Joke

Nor is it a Gold Mine

I recently had one of those experiences that always gets me lathered up for a fight: someone told a lawyer joke. Lawyer jokes really piss me off, especially the ones about killing lawyers or comparing them to slugs and slime. I take them personally. After all, I left the law after only nine years of practice because it was physically exhausting, emotionally gruelling, and (comparatively) financially unrewarding. And that was after having dreamed all my life of being a lawyer and not actually becoming one until I was 46. Despite having worked in law firms since I was 16 years old – doing everything from reception to real estate clerking – I found the difficulties of lawyering outstripped the rewards.

So when I hear a lawyer joke, I try to defend our profession and to explode the myths that we are rapacious, slathering money-grubbers who have only our own interests at heart. Needless to say, my indignation usually falls on deaf ears. They don’t believe it when I tell them about the lawyers I know who are lucky to make sixty grand in a year (which, by the way, is what the average well-trained legal assistant makes), or the many who get out of the profession because of the endless work and limited return. I tell them about the lawyer I know who drives for Uber to make ends meet. For every rich lawyer living in Forest Hill, I tell them, there’s some guy who’s three months behind on the rent for his storefront cubicle. We are not all rich, and some of us even go broke.

But this joke-teller had a reason for having so little sympathy for the poor, broke, lawyers. Indignantly he told me that his lawyer was charging him $650 an hour – for corporate work! He simply could not fathom that sum. After all, he was an engineer, and his hourly rate was only $90. What, he demanded of me, could possibly justify asking six hundred and fifty dollars an hour?

Oddly, I couldn’t really say. In fact, I kind of agree with him. The fact that we lawyers look at an hourly rate of $650 and say, that’s reasonable, is kind of – sorry – nuts. Where on earth do we come off charging that kind of money? Yes, we have grotesque overheads – see above re: the sixty-thousand-a-year assistant – but we can also be totally profligate. Every time I went into a Bay Street firm for a meeting or negotiation, I cringed at the embarrassment of riches: the carpets, the art, the grotesque show-offery of the furnishings in reception, and the meeting rooms. No wonder the damned hourly rates were so high. Somebody had to foot the bill for this stuff.

The argument is, of course, that the clients want and expect that sort of cathedral-like display. They equate it with competence. They don’t want the storefront guy who is surrounded by outdated books, overflowing towers of sloppy files, and an assistant who’s a volunteer intern on work term from a second-rate career college. They want top-of-the line service, and they believe that “top-of-the-line” and “expensive” are the same thing.  I once lost a client on a real estate litigation matter who readily admitted that I knew more and had more experience in the area than the Bay Street guy he was taking the file to. But he thought the other guy’s firm was a bigger name, and that it would be “more intimidating.” The Bay Street firm’s rate was twice what mine was. (PS: I hope that client lost). (PSS: With a big costs order against him.)

But I would disagree that the best lawyers always cost more. One of the finest lawyers I know – scrupulous, informed, dedicated – works out of a small suite of offices above a karate school in a strip mall. On the other hand, one of the most outrageous rip-off artists I ever had the misfortune to cross paths with was a boutique guy whose hourly rate (he boasted to me) was $850. Certainly the “go-to guy/gal” is often a downtown lawyer, but not always. I met more than one big-biller who was all talk and no substance, and more than one modestly-priced practitioner who knew their stuff cold. Just because they’ve got opulent offices and in-house catering does not mean they’re “worth” the rates they charge. It merely means that people will pay them.

But it’s not just the shockingly high rates that make people hate lawyers. It’s the perception that we’re crooks, thieves, and slimeballs; that we drag things out and waste time; that we’re sloppy and incompetent. Then there’s the less justified notion that “getting the lawyers involved” will escalate any dispute to a full-out war. Even in this, though, there’s truth. For every lawyer who counsels negotiation and compromise, who spends hours in the woodshed with his unreasonable client, there’s someone who just can’t stop themselves from turning everything into a war. Sometimes it’s beyond all reason: I once had to litigate with another lawyer who was clearly suffering from some sort of paranoid disorder, whose face would contort in fury when she spoke to you in person, spit flying from her mouth. There was something genuinely wrong with her, but she was licensed and in good standing, and so there was nothing to be done, but my job.

Ask any lawyer. We all have horror stories about other lawyers we’ve encountered; stories of incompetence, sharp practice, rudeness, slippery behaviour, time-wasting, madness, the works. So it’s hard to get indignant about lawyer jokes when we, ourselves, recognize that there’s a problem. Which leaves us with: what can we – each of us, as lawyers – do about it?

I have a few suggestions. First of all, do what my grandma said: keep your own doorstep clean. Don’t be that lawyer, the one that the other lawyers shudder when they talk about. There’s a difference between being a fierce advocate who asks the tough questions and being a trouble-making, time-wasting jerk. Be professional, always. Show up on time. Answer your emails. Don’t take on more clients than you have time for, and don’t do work in areas you’re not up to speed on. Don’t lose your temper (or try not to lose it too bigly) either in person or in writing (remember that saying: dance like nobody’s watching, email like it’s going to be read out in court some day). Know the damned rules – be they the rules of a court or the rules of conduct – and follow them, even the little ones. Don’t kid yourself: they’re all important. There are reasons for the rules, and a lot of those reasons had to do with attempting to control bad lawyering. A lot of bad lawyering would be cut right out if people just followed the rules.

Now, about money. Remember, people worked hard for their money. They cash in RSPs to hire us. They go into debt. They are often frightened, desperate, and bewildered. They are facing a massive financial drain that they can’t avoid. So don’t be greedy, and don’t assume you’re entitled to be rich. Just because you have the opportunity to charge more, don’t automatically do it. An example: I once attended a CLE lecture on powers-of-sale where one topic was how to deal with the surplus. (FYI, on a power of sale under mortgage, the lender is only allowed to recoup the debt and the recovery costs/expenses; anything left over is returned to the borrower.) The speaker actually said, at a CLE lecture, “if there’s any money left over, you haven’t charged enough! Hahaha! Joking!” And to my horror, people in the audience laughed. Jesus wept – it’s bad enough to lose your house to a mortgage enforcement, but to lose the equity to the lawyer’s bills? No wonder people hate us.

I suppose it’s thin gruel indeed that I’m counselling good behaviour and adherence to our duty (and charging lower or, at least, conscionable rates) when I started this article by whining about how hard it was to be a lawyer, and how there wasn’t enough money in it. Fair enough. It wasn’t the profession so much as it was me. After decades of wanting to be a lawyer, I finally became one, only to find out that I was in a profession that – as one senior lawyer warned me it would –  utterly consumed my life. But am I proud of what I did as a lawyer? Did I think I did a good job? Was it worth it? You betcha, baby. There are at least three families in Toronto who have their homes because I waded in against the mortgage fraud artists, and their wilfully-blind lawyers, who had stolen their titles. I still have the little string of pearls that one set of clients – dear people, devout, and harmless Christians – gave me after we finally managed to fend off the vicious adjoining landowner who’d been trying to steal half their backyard on a bogus adverse-possession claim. “Every Sunday we thanked God for you,” they told me. Then there’s the clients in a boundary dispute who had trouble keeping their cool when their neighbour would come out and hurl insults at them from the other side of the driveway. I told them about the Bandar-log, the nasty, filth-throwing monkeys in Kipling’s Jungle Book, and how all the wise jungle folk ignored them. When the case was finally over (they won), they gave me an illustrated copy of the Jungle Book.

I should take my own advice when I hear the insults in lawyer jokes. I should remember all the good lawyers, all the wonderful hard-working counsel that advocated strongly without being obnoxious, sly, or unprofessional; all the like-minded souls who loved the business, despite its endless difficulties; all the conveyancing solicitors who stayed late and dug deep to solve some title problem that was jeopardizing a deal (and charged nothing to do it). So here’s to all the lawyers who keep it clean and keep it honest, and who do their duty to the best of their ability, and who don’t treat their clients’ hard-earned money like their own personal piggy bank. No matter how much filth is thrown our way, this is a profession we should be proud of, all joking aside.