Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Consulting My Paycheck

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Total Black: $66.71
Total Red: $230,428.77

Another contract attorney and I got to talking today about legal consulting work.  He told me about a friend of his who suggested he help out a third person who had been having difficulty collecting on a promissory note.  This third person had loaned ten thousand dollars to another person, who also happened to be an attorney, and he was not paying and now wasn’t even returning her calls.  Upon hearing from his friend about this woman’s matter, he didn’t feel particularly adept in handling it so he passed along the name of another attorney she might call, also a friend of his.  Sometime later he met up with that friend and asked about the outcome of the woman’s debt collection efforts.  His attorney friend told him that there was nothing he could do to help the woman because the promissory note she had was usurious.  She put in a 10% interest rate.  And if a lawyer had tried to collect on the note, my co-worker’s attorney friend informed him, that lawyer would have been subject to sanction by the court for attempting to collect on a usurious debt—akin to loan-sharking.  What makes this story so noteworthy?  My co-worker and I would have never thought to even consider the interest rate.  Ten percent didn’t seem all that high to me given that credit cards can legally charge up to 30% on your purchases.  His story represented to me the dangers accompanying legal consulting work.

About two weeks ago I received a comment suggesting that I engage in legal freelance, or consulting, work as a means to supplement my income.  Although I endorsed the idea, at least somewhat so, in Hang a Shingle, I’ve been reluctant to follow through on it.  And I haven’t really known why.  The story I heard today solidified my aversion a bit more.

All licensed professionals, but lawyers more so I suspect, are vulnerable to the suggestion that they take matters into their own hands and earn a living with the license they’ve been given.  But unlike other licensed professionals, the practice of law is one wrought with many landmines.  See, lawyers do not finish law school with a mastery of the law.  In fact, many don’t even know the law of the state whose exam they’ll sit for until they pay for a bar review class and cram that knowledge in.  Moreover, many law schools don’t truly prepare their students how to practice law because legal education over the past one hundred years grew into an academic pursuit and away from a trade.  Law was, once upon a time, a trade; people apprenticed to become lawyers.  Presumably doctors, with their multiple years of schooling and various stages of licensing, presumably they can take on clients soon after being licensed.  I’ve never heard of doctors being laid-off, so I don’t know if they’d ever have a similar situation that currently faces lawyers.  Likewise, plumbers or electricians aren’t similarly situated to lawyers because they’re licensing process prepares them to practice.  Same for accountants or dentists or even massage therapists.  Lawyers are the only licensed profession that I’m aware of who finish school without the skills to practice their art.  Instead, law school teaches students how to think like lawyers—a truly invaluable skill, but one not sufficient enough to help in drafting a will, setting up a trust, or preparing a divorce agreement.

In addition to lacking the actual knowledge for practicing law, attorneys also face significant malpractice risk, especially from disgruntled clients and bitter opposing attorneys.  Clients view bar council as the Returns Department for their legal purchases and bar council investigates every complaint regardless of its facial merit.  In addition, lawyers are obligated to report each other for ethical violations and they often do so, not for legitimate concerns but as a strategy on their case.  So practicing without malpractice insurance is a serious risk.  I’m not even sure if one may practice without insurance.  I suppose I should know whether it’s required, but I don’t.  We must also open a separate bank account, one that not every bank offers, an IOLTA account—interest on lawyer trust account.  Client funds are held in these interest-bearing accounts with the interest earned getting pooled to fund non-profit and pro bono agencies.  So, I suppose I’m back-peddling a bit on my earlier thoughts in Hang a Shingle, especially since I’m still doing work for the colleague I’ve mentioned many times who also hasn’t yet paid me.  Like with many professionals, legal work is either paid for in bulk upfront or afterward once services have already been rendered.  If I take on a client who wanted a will performed, I’d have to draft the will and then bill the client.  If, like the colleague, she didn’t pay, I’d be stuck trying to collect the amount due.  That wouldn’t help my current financial situation.  If I took a matter on a contingency fee, like the pro bono client’s case I’m now handling, I wouldn’t earn a cent until the case came to a conclusion and the client authorized my fee.  That too wouldn’t help my situation.  There’s also the option to have the client pay me an amount upfront that I then draw down as I work on the client’s matter.  That would help my situation, assuming the matter required a decent amount of work.  But with only two years of practice under my belt, I’m not really sure what type of solo work I’m competent to take on.

So what’s the point here?  At the moment, I need security.  And that comes from a paycheck.  It’s not only legal work that can be consulting.  I invested countless hours in the Recession Art Sale as an art seller only to earn a thousand dollars in the end.  It helped for sure, but it took nearly six weeks to get that amount—start to finish—and, in theory, towards the end I gave up approximately $120 a day by leaving the contract attorney position to work at the art show.  Likewise the medical experiment I’m participating in will probably end up a wash if I were to count the number of hours missed to make the bi-monthly appointments.  I’ve thought about taking on other non-paycheck work but my hesitation is that it’s not a sure thing.  Income is not guaranteed.  Consulting work is a bit of a gamble and in that sense it’s challenging and invigorating . . . and perhaps a bit exciting.  But right now, I need guaranteed income.  My landlord won’t accept that payment is on its way.   Nor will the credit cards.  Perhaps if I were to move back with my mother, then I could try my hand at a consulting a bit more, but not now.  Not yet.

So for now, the theatre gig, contact attorney positions, or anything that nets me cash on the spot will be where I focus my efforts.  At least until I’ve got a bit of savings put aside sufficient to cushion any consulting or non-paycheck efforts.

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