Creative and Ethical Ways for Newer Attorneys to Compete

“I am a brand-new lawyer and I don’t know how I can compete.”

“I cannot claim expertise because I don’t have it, but if I don’t claim it I cannot get any experience, i.e. expertise.”

“How do I compete in this economy as a new solo lawyer?”

There are a lot of ways that a new lawyer can compete with other attorneys, including more experienced attorneys.  A lot depends on what commitments you are prepared to make.

1)  In most states, claiming to be an “expert” is ethically suspect or outright prohibited.  Even if your jurisdiction allows it somehow, it is almost certainly unethical conduct for you under your state’s version of Rule 7.1 (truth in advertising, etc.) and Rule 8.4 (misconduct = conduct involving deceit or misrepresentation.)  Don’t do it.

2)  Instead, consider claiming NOT to be an expert.  Why?

a) It is the right thing to do because it’s the truth – if you are new, you don’t have experience, which derives from the same Latin root as expertise.

b) It lowers expectations of the client so that if there’s a hiccup, they will be more forgiving.  (Obviously, you must be competent, i.e. adequately possessed of judgment and skill to get the work done, to take the case at all under Rule 1.1.)

c) It keeps you humble, i.e. makes you more likely to seek out the answer.

d) It is a powerful, absolutely ethically approved marketing ploy that will shock and stun more than a few clients and potential clients.

How often do people hear, “I am competent but I am NO expert at this”?  I don’t know that it is in any way unethical to use countercultural shock strategies like honesty with clients and potential clients. If anyone is aware of it being unethical to be brutally honest, due to the risk of stunning clients like deer in the headlights, please let me know the citation.  Maryland has no prohibition on blunt honesty to my knowledge, though some states might fear the emotional effect on clients and potential clients.

What’s the competitive advantage?  Well, after the client recovers from the shock, you will be remembered.

3)  What CAN you really compete on?  Well, you can theoretically compete on tech-savviness, but I am not convinced that clients care about tech toys.  Maybe iPads are “cool” for jury work or some types of presentations in transactional practice, but I doubt it.  What do clients care about?  Getting what they pay for, getting treated like a human being, good results, good access, empowerment, justice, revenge, etc., in my experience, though I don’t endorse all of these motives.  Point: don’t view tech as a client relations or competitive advantage unless you KNOW (not think or hope, KNOW) it’s an actual advantage.

4)  Educating clients.  A lot of lawyers fall short on this.  Not all clients want to be educated about the legal system, but many do.  Many may not know they want it, but when they learn more they appreciate more what you do.  Many clients want to feel empowered or reassured; education may help with either emotional motive.  You may not have “expertise” – if you are new, you don’t – but you can help clients learn more (if they want to learn.)

On this site, there are pages that describe, in (I hope) pretty plain language, the basics of Maryland unemployment insurance appeals procedure and Maryland traffic court procedure.

5)  Calling people back timely.  My office has a strict policy: clients get a call back with 24 hours, or an apology for the breach of the Client Bill of Rights which my office adheres to.  Ask your carrier or your disciplinary authority: what angers clients?  I’ll bet you a crabcake in Baltimore that the answer will be failure to respond to communications.  I don’t promise 24-hour returns on email, but I return calls within 24 hours.  Do not worry that the client will interpret your prompt callback as evidence of a lack of work; tell the clients that their time merits respect (which is true) and that’s why you called back fast.  Who can argue with that?

An attorney near me who does some of the same work that I do has lost clients to me, a lot of clients. Why?  Because she is a very good lawyer but not so quick with the return calls, whereas I am prompt.  I view it as her buying me lunch, often.  I am not “stealing” the clients; the clients just go where they are well-treated and if my esteemed colleague won’t return her calls, I will return mine.  Technology that makes you NOT miss or lose phone calls is actually a worthy spend.

6)  The human touch.  Do you know any arrogant lawyers who take a high-and-mighty tone with everyone?  Of course you do.  They may know more than you, but you can be disciplined to extend courtesy to a visiting client, guide the wheelchair-using client with her wheelchair, cane, seeing-eye animal or bad hip to your office, offering a cold or hot beverage and thanking her.  This is not so hard unless you are incapable of the human touch.

7)  Using PROPER terms of address, PROPER greetings and pronouncing names PROPERLY.  Never, and I mean never, address a client by her or his first name if she or he is over 18 unless invited.  In my office, addressing a senior citizen by his/her first name unless invited would be a firing offense if I had associates to fire (I don’t.)  In several American subcultures, that form of disrespect is extremely offensive even with younger clients. Don’t ask to address the client by first name; let the client direct you.  There are books on proper forms of address for clergy, academics, military and diplomats, etc.; get good at those and don’t be afraid to ask questions to get it right.  If your client is a Marine Lance Corporal or a Marine Corporal, it’s a very good idea NOT to get those ranks mixed up, as doing so is considered disrespect to both ranks.

If your clients are very religious or, especially, clergy, get it right.  An Orthodox rabbi may hesitate to shake the hand of his attorney if she is a woman.  An Orthodox priest will usually receive warmly the request for a blessing – “Father, bless.”  Getting the ecclesiastical title right matters; a bishop may be a different role among Latter-Day Saints than among Roman Catholics, and knowing that an Episcopal clergyman is usually a “priest” while a Lutheran clergyman is usually a “pastor” gives you credibility.

Similarly, it is polite to ask your client what the proper pronunciation of her/his name is if there is the least doubt.  Know that the English “j”, the Spanish “j”, the French “j” and the German”j” have four different pronunciations.  Prohibit stupidity in your office on this issue and enforce the prohibition. No sound is worse in any language than the sound of one’s name butchered by some fool’s lassitude.  If your client list includes many names from non-English-speaking regions, it may behoove you to take a lesson or two in that language.

You’d think this would be obvious, but because it’s not, you can compete.  There is nothing unethical about strict courtesy.

8)  Fanatical respect for the client’s money.  I don’t refer here to respecting the escrow rules; doing that’s a given or you are hitting the bricks to another career.  I refer to non-billing petty things, not charging for borderline items or reducing charges when something simply runs on longer than is fair or good business to bill for.  Not billing for mistakes, not billing for discussing mistakes, not billing for correcting mistakes; this triad will keep your client’s respect and gratitude for your integrity and your good sense.

Lawyers are infamous for overbilling; nothing makes a client feel better than the sense that her lawyer respects her money and her intelligence.  Consider using the “niece” test: would you tell your niece that your bill is fair and reasonable as a whole, in addition to mere technical compliance with the four corners of your services agreement? Does your bill say that you respect yourself but also respect your client?  If not, it’s a fail.  If yes, you will be competing – effectively and ethically – against your lazier, more experienced sisters and brothers in the Bar.

9)  Affinity group affiliation.  This is a hard category to define, but a good one to think about.  There is in my state a very well-regarded attorney who is known as an expert on same-sex adoption and in vitro fertilization legal work.  (She cannot call herself one, but other people call her one and apparently with great justification.)  In addition to being a very good attorney by all reports, she is also known to some extent as an attorney affiliated with the LGBT community. Does this help her practice? I don’t know.  But it is part of her “identity” at least online – not “identity” as defined by legal marketing hacks but by real affiliation, real legal work and quite possibly/probably her own identity.

I know of another attorney near me whose trial practice is very respected and who is without doubt a leader in Baltimore’s African-American legal community and the broader African-American community.  His communications, connections, allies, heroes, etc., are strongly derived from (though presumably not exclusively from) those communities.  I am probably not “religious” by conventional definitions of that word, but if I were, I might pray I never have to oppose him.

In LA, there is an attorney who advertises herself, or did recently, as “L.A.’s dopest attorney,” and who handles marijuana legal issues in that state.  By all accounts she is a very skilled practitioner who knows her material quite well.  I personally would not be comfortable with describing myself as the “dopest attorney,” although I am proud to be a Maryland member of the NORML National Legal Committee.  The point, however, is that she has a strong identification with that highly regulated, legally ambiguous industry and subculture and without a doubt that fact has aided her practice growth in her acknowledged area of technical skill and interest.

What do these three different practitioners have in common?  Well, all are regarded as excellent in their work, first.  But second, they also have in addition to hallmarks of excellence a practice identity that is connected to a specific culture or subculture.  Can I tell you how to apply this to your real life?  No, but maybe you might be the first _______-American attorney in your community.  Or maybe you are a vegetarian and you have a passionate interest in promoting that community.  I wouldn’t know if there’s a need specifically for a “vegetarian community attorney”, since I am not a vegetarian.  But maybe you can establish – ethically, tastefully and wisely – a bona fide subcultural identity or affinity to your practice that reflects your real life, values and relationships.  It’s worth thinking about though there’s no “answer” here other than to pursue excellence first.

You can probably build your practice successfully despite the difficulties of starting out, being inexperienced and facing a difficult economy – IF you get good, ethically cautious and generous mentors, you are diligent and ethically cautious and you actually want to do it.  Good luck, counselors.

Can a law student market herself to “future clients” while not licensed?

Jared Correia, respected advisor to Law Office Management Assistance Program for the Massachusetts Bar, commented in an interview with The Girl’s Guide to Law School as follows.

The shadow consideration underlying everything that I have said in answer to this question [ed. – regarding online marketing] is that future lawyers need not wait to graduate law school to begin to market themselves as entities, to showcase themselves for potential employers, or to create something of a track record of who they are as an attorney, for future potential clients to review, as a deeper look at where they came from, with the whole packaged online development perhaps ending up making the difference, at least initially, in who those future potential clients choose to hire. While law students cannot blog in the same way that practicing attorneys do, they can create a reputation for themselves based on those things that they can blog about: their legal subject interests, case notes/reviews, life as a law student, preparations for practice, and etc.

In the rest of the piece, Mr. Correia gives some wise advice regarding professionalizing one’s Facebook page and related topics both to non-attorneys and to attorneys. I think there is a lot of wisdom in the rest of the piece, but I have reservations about the comment above.

One really cannot be in the act of marketing a product or service which is unlawful to offer. Almost every state has an unauthorized practice of law statute criminalizing the practice of law without authorization. Many of those states have common-law criminal doctrines regarding attempted crimes, including my beloved Maryland, such that the act of marketing to “future clients.”

There is certainly nothing wrong with going out of one’s way to remove unprofessional material from one’s online presence to the extent that one can do so. Nor is there any problem with discussing law, the legal system or, for the most part, the practice of law; such commentary is protected under the First Amendment. The problem is in either offering legal advice or holding oneself out as someone who may lawfully offer legal advice. I don’t think that Mr. Correia was actually advocating anything on the wrong side of the line; indeed given his role I would astonished if he were to do so. The problem is that the readers of this blog are NOT lawyers but law students, i.e. people who not only have not been licensed by a Bar to offer legal advice for hire but who have not even necessarily passed a Professional Responsibility course in law school. Mr. Correia’s advice is like whiskey: a fine product but problematic for the inexperienced.

I can easily see an entrepreneurial-minded law student reader of the Girl’s Guide to Law School starting to “market” herself online to potential clients from her second-year law school dorm or apartment, using Mr. Correia’s advice (or maybe a unfair corruption of it) in doing so. The law student has no malpractice insurance; she’s uninsurable. She has probably not completed Professional Responsibility coursework. She read on a website interview of a respected law practice management leader that she can begin to market herself online, and there’s no Bar community, no mentor, no law professor on her laptop to stand athwart her ambition and shout “HALT!” Thus she jams both her quasi-clients and herself, when the Bar examiners in her state find her blog through Ye Olde Wayback Machine when she applies. The Girl’s Guide to Law School will not save her then.

None of this train wreck could be what Mr. Correia intended; he is by all appearances a conscientious and decent man with a strict ethical sense who would never wish such a mess on potential quasi-clients, law students or the Bar. But it’s not hard for me to see it happening.

Short answer in my view: there’s nothing wrong ethically with marketing oneself as a law student or future attorney to other attorneys for employment, and nothing wrong with commenting on the law or the legal profession, even at great length and detail. But there exists no license whatsover to market oneself to future clients without a valid law license; “future clients” don’t actually exist. Such marketing can begin, if at all, only after the last act or condition precedent necessary to perfect a law license application and approval is satisfied. In Maryland, that involves taking an oath in Annapolis on Rowe Boulevard before seven red-robed judges and signing an entry book on that day. Until then, neither clients nor future clients actually exist.

Sexual Relationships with Clients: Good Judgment > Strictures

Model Rule 1.8(j) of the American Bar Associations suggested ethics rules for attorneys states as follows:

(j) A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual sexual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.

Not all states that broadly follow the Model Rules in their ethics codes have adopted this rule. Maryland and Louisiana both rejected this rule while adopting most or all of the rest of Model Rule 1.8, which addresses a number of different ethical conflict concerns including representing co-defendants or co-plaintiffs, not naming oneself as a client’s will beneficiary under most conditions, ethical issues involving media/publicity rights, etc.

When I first read this Model Rule as a young attorney, my reaction was immediate and swift: OF COURSE attorneys should not be sexually involved with their clients whatsoever.  Had I been on the ABA committee as a young attorney, I probably would have pushed for a more severe language.  The act of getting intimately involved with a client just seemed like such unbelievable bad news that I would have wanted any attorney “dumb” enough to violate the rule to spend time in the ethical penalty box, under the theory that stupidity should be expensive on general principles.

Age and experience have affirmed my revulsion at the foolishness of getting sexually involved with a client, and in my office it would be per se a firing offense.  I am now more inclined to think, even convinced, however, to think that that Model Rule 1.8(j) as written is unwise for two practical reasons.

1)  Inclusio unius = exclusio alterius – the inclusion of one example constitutes the exclusion of others.  By barring “sexual relations”, the rule would appear to admit personal relationships that do not cross the line of “sexual relations.”  The last latter term was not explicitly defined in the Model Rules and, infamously, has been the source of late-night comedy show humor since the President Clinton scandal of 1997-1999 (I refuse to refer to that scandal by the surname of the young Executive Branch employee.)  By prohibiting “sexual relations”, the rule could by implication allow relationships between lawyer and client that are dysfunctional, ethically compromised and conflict-ridden, but by narrow construction fall outside of “sexual relations.”

2)  Some “sexual relations” or “sexual relationships” simply should not fall into attorney disciplinary under principles of common sense, fundamental fairness or decency.  Perhaps a concrete example may help.

Adrienne Attorney meets Calvert Client through a mutual friend attorney Nora Networker, who knows everybody.  Calvert got caught allegedly doing 62 in a 50 mph work zone on the Baltimore Beltway near Liberty Road, and asks Adrienne to represent him on the ticket as a favor.  Adrienne normally charges $400.00 for this but waives the fee as a courtesy to Nora.  Calvert and Adrienne, turns out, have lots of friends in common and go out for lunch.  They really hit it off; they turn out to belong to the same religious community and have family members in the same social organizations.  The court date is 2 months away.

Adrienne and Calvert attend a party thrown by Nora on their fourth date, three weeks before the speeding ticket trial date.  After a night of flirting and mildly wine-soaked humor, they crash at Adrienne’s place.  As sometimes happens, conduct ensues in private that would not meet the full approval of the spiritual leader of their community.  Finally on the trial date, Adrienne represents Calvert in court; the law enforcement officer no-shows and the charge is dismissed.

A few weeks after the court date, Adrienne has second thoughts about whether the personal relationship is wise.  She’s decided she’s not comfortable being at variance with the teachings of her religious community, and tells Calvert that she’s just not comfortable with the relationship as it currently stands.  Calvert responds poorly and leaves in a huff.  He tells Nora about the details of the relationship the following week, stating that it was going well and then went to hell.

a)  Should Nora now be under a duty to “squeal” to Bar Counsel?  Is this conduct that raises a substantial question as to Adrienne’s fitness to practice law in this state?

b)  Should Adrienne face public discipline, call her carrier for a disciplinary attorney, face a peer review committe, face the Commission, face a closed-door proceeding in Circuit Court, face seven judges in red robes in Annapolis and possibly lose her attorney permit when the ethical impact of the incipient sexual relationship on the client’s legal position was probably zero?

c) Should the taxpayers of Maryland pay Attorney Grievance Commission investigators, Assistant Bar Counsel, etc., salary and benefits to pursue the facts of Calvert and Adrienne?

As stated, I find the idea of initiating a sexual relationship with a current client to be a serious judgment lapse justifying a firing, even when it’s just a speeding ticket.  But it’s probably wise that my prejudices and quirks don’t inform the attorney ethics rules of this state.  Model Rule 1.8(j) was a worthy start to the discussion, but in the absence of any prejudice to any client’s rights through actual ethical conflict, it’s probably an overbroad rule in practice.

“So, Bruce, what do you specialize in?”

Nothing.

For the record, I, Bruce Godfrey, do not specialize in any field of law. I don’t.  If you need a specialist, please go elsewhere.

Why?

Because the Court of Appeals of Maryland owns my main law license and leases it back to me for an annual maintenance fee, and that Court has made it abundantly clear that no Maryland attorney may claim any specialty.  I don’t want the Court, through Bar Counsel and the Attorney Grievance Commission, repossessing that license due to a breach of lease, so to speak.

On December 13, 1994, I (and many hundreds of my colleagues) took an oath on Rowe Boulevard in Annapolis before the seven red-robed judges of the Court of Appeals to obey the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct. Rule 7.4 (a) prohibiting claims of “specialty” reads essentially the same today as it did then.  No Maryland attorney may hold her/himself out as a specialist publicly.  By logical extension, every part of speech derived from specialist (specialize, specialty, etc.) is prohibited to Maryland attorneys in public communications regarding oneself.

The Rules allow attorneys to communicate the practice areas in which they practice, and allows patent attorneys holding that status from the USPTO to communicate that fact.  So long as attorneys avoid the term “specialist” or its derivatives, attorneys may communicate the fact (if true) that they have additional academic achievements or other licenses/certifications/degrees, such as an LLM, an MBA or the like.  But there are no “specialists” here.

Why are there no specialists, and why is the term prohibited?  Simple.  There are no boards of specialty that confirm specialization certificates.  Texas has several attorney boards of specialty which set standards for attorney specialists, such as trial work, publications, taking and teaching continuing legal education, examinations and the like.  To become a specialist in criminal law, for example, a Texas attorney must practice at least 25% of her practice time for a 5 year period in Texas as a criminal attorney and must have handled at least 10-20 jury trials and/or appeals under a complex formula. In California, a specialist in admiralty law must amass a total of 300 points for professional achievements including the filing of maritime liens, arrests, litigation over ocean bills of lading, maritime personal injury claims, maritime mediation briefs and the like as well as vessel transactional matters such as hiring a crew or exchanging title.

Maryland could invent a similar administrative structure for specialty boards, but has not done so.  Maryland is one of the few states that does not require continuing professional education, and has (or had the last time I checked) the least expensive bar dues in the nation.  Perhaps some day Maryland will mandate CPE or create boards of specialty, but it has not done either.  The former may happen soon but I have heard no demand from any quarter of the organized Bar here for specialty boards in the Old Line State.  Without specialty boards, holding oneself out as a specialist attorney in Maryland is meaningless, prohibited by express rule and probably also constitutes a false or misleading communication under Rule 7.1 and even deceptive conduct under Rule 8.4 (Misconduct).

The issue of specialty boards reflects a broader issue in the Bar, perhaps more intensely among newer attorneys but also broadly among the entire Bar, namely, the management of professional expectations by clients of their attorneys and the ethical communication of skills and lack of skills when applicable by attorneys to their clients.  We cannot engage in deceptive conduct or communications to or with our clients or potential clients regarding what we offer and what we can do.  We cannot compare our services to those of other attorneys unless that comparison has a factual basis under Rule 7.1 (c), objective basis in fact; claiming to be a specialist when there are no boards of specialty probably violates that rule as well by implication since specialty is a claim of distinction from other attorneys, i.e. a comparison.

Selling used cars is a legitimate way to make a living.  So is selling fashion.  But if the client asks us, “does this suit make my rear end look big,” we have to be honest.  We have to be able to say the law practice equivalent of “no, the suit doesn’t make your rear end look big.  Your rear end is objectively big; the suit is an innocent bystander.”  And if we have to be honest about the clients’ liabilities, negotiation posture or rear end size, we have to be more ruthlessly honest about ourselves.  We are fiduciaries; we owe a special duty to look out for clients far above and beyond what we owe ourselves, and that starts with not lying about who and what we are.

Go to Craigslist in your town or region and take a look at the ads by lawyers.  Check and see how many claim to be from “specialists.”  Go now, check it out and come back.  Most states that allow the claims of “specialization” state that it cannot be done without the existence of official certification of a specialty.  If they say that they “specialize” in anything, and do not state their Board of Specialty status in a formal way, that’s a sign that you are being snowed (or so the attorney is trying to do.)  Sometimes attorneys use that term because they do not realize that it has a meaning other than a mere practice area, which we are permitted to communicate to prospective clients.  Sometimes attorneys are snowing their clients and prospective clients without realizing they are doing so.  “Specialize” is not a synonym for “practice in a particular area.”

I am 43 years old today (7 March), born in the hard core center of Generation X, the cynics’ generation.  At the risk of engaging in “invidious discrimination” on the basis of age, I will reference the perception of Generation Y common among my cohort as excessively dependent on rewards and reassurances.  It is possible that the “specialization inflation” among sone attorneys derives from a desire to feel good about themselves.  We are required to be competent and should not apologize for being merely competent.  We need not be excellent in everything, or specialize in anything.  We must be competent and we must deliver excellence when we promise it.  Part of maturity is recognizing that we must persevere and meet our duty even when we wear no cape, will get no trophy or will get no Roman triumph past the Colosseum.

Sometimes, we do our duty merely competently, shake hands, close the file and earn an honest fee for honest work.  In this there is no shame; on the contrary, it is the hallmark of professionalism in attitude beyond differences in knowledge and skill among different professionals.  The height of professionalism is to say,”Madam, I am not a specialist in your field.  But because I know I am not a specialist, you will see me starting with a respectable base of knowledge and a sense of care regarding your needs – because I KNOW I don’t know it all from memory.  I will handle your case like a professional and will  treat you with maximum respect.  My goal is to earn your referrals of all 172 of your cousins to my practice.  Will you honor me, a non-specialist, with the entrustment of your legal needs with your X?”  And, then, get it done, shake hands, close the file and earn the fee.

Internet Marketing and Attorneys – Say No to the Corinthian Leather

If you dip your toe into the attorney blogosphere (or, to use a term I dislike, blawg-osphere), you can see two sorts of camps seemingly at war with each other.  One camp – here called the “Kewl Kids” – seems to embrace internet marketing and style in priority over the practice of law and its myriad problems and concerns including ethical concerns and technical competence.   The other camp – the “Nasty Mamzers” – seems to decry the Kewl Kids’ marketing machine in severe language, prioritizing its policing role on attorney ethics at moments over the basics of the civil use of business English.  Nobody ever won a war with blanks, I guess, but I’d rather tend to my own crops than levy war online; practicing law and being a politically opinionated jerk take up enough of my time without participating in the attorney redux of the Thirty Years’ War.

In my view, one of the best ways both to show and to reinforce professional (or other) competence in a field is to teach in that field, formally or informally.  Skills matter and the act of teaching – online, in person, in a lecture hall, you name it – forces the teacher not only to have knowledge but to organize it, prioritize it, strip it of confusing jargon and garbage buzzwords.  The act of conveying – or failing to convey, as well – knowledge about a field provides value to teacher and student alike.  Of course, it’s important not to “unteach” i.e. to make the student and probably oneself less knowledgeable through giving bad info or bad judgment.  This informational approach is the path that I have attempted to take online with my presentations on unemployment insurance appeals procedure in Maryland, Maryland traffic court procedure and the like.  So far, it seems to have been a success.

Fortunately, Google at least partially rewards good content in its search engine service.  When I wrote these pieces, I wasn’t thinking about search engine optimization.  I have written other substantive pieces on other topics where I was aware of SEO, but wasn’t focusing on SEO on those and wasn’t thinking about it at all for those two back in 2009.  I wrote the UI appeals and traffic pieces as a way of providing worthwhile content to visitors including current clients, prospective clients and other attorneys who had already made it to the site, not as “Google-bait.”  But “bait” they were and are.  All of a sudden I started getting cold calls on unemployment appeals for workers from Google natural search.

Why did my rough content (arguably rough now, more so in its early drafts) get so many calls?  I don’t know; the pieces are competent but nothing special.  I strongly suspect that most attorneys don’t think to explain law and procedure on their sites; this impression I do get from the many plastic, car-ad looking attorney websites that I see.  A lawyer site that explains the law and basic procedure seems … obvious?  Maybe not.  If you think I am wrong, type in “[your town] attorney] and see what you get, whether you can just smell the “Corinthian leather” coming off of the sites.  Go look and come back, tell me if I am wrong.

Google doesn’t like bogus “Corinthian leather” content and tends to penalize it, or so reports and my limited experience seem to suggest.  According to my clients and prospective clients who choose to tell me, the top ten search pages for Maryland unemployment attorney/lawyer on Google include my page and the page of another labor attorney whom I respect, and that attorney pays more for web hosting and design than I do.  My practice pays $6/month for hosting and nothing for SEO/web design fees, as my platform is a DIY modification of a free WordPress theme, modified through my knowledge of HTML and CSS.  In the end, the pages are dull but useful – not Kewl in the least – and that’s what Google seems to like.

My pages are written at maybe a 9th grade level, arguably too high a level for prospective clients but they seem to function.  The language has undergone a number of iterations over the last three years to get rid of the “fluff” and the unnecessary jargon.  The pages bespeak confidence and competence in these areas; they sell without selling and inform without lecturing.  I do not have similar pages for personal injury cases or divorce work because I simply lack the same skill set in those areas, and I don’t do divorce at all.  While I am happy enough if prospective divorce clients call me, I won’t represent them but will instead help them get to the proper attorney outside my practice, possibly by “bringing in” that attorney.  These pages describe what I do, what I am willing to do from a business standpoint and what I know (not hope, KNOW) I can do competently; that’s what the ethics rules require and also what makes for good business in my experience.

The casual reader may note frequent references to Maryland on my site.  This is no accident.  I am licensed in Maryland; my office (main and satellite) are here as are my apartment, my family, my high school, my car, my hobbies, etc.  Someday my corpse or other remains will be here.  I have no desire to live or practice anywhere else (except in the District of Columbia, i.e. Maryland’s gift of Maryland land to the Republic.)  I want other attorneys, both here and in alien, hostile countries like Texas and Utah, to associate Bruce Godfrey strongly with Maryland.  No one thinks of Ed Koch as being from Kansas City, or Andy Griffith as a Minnesotan, or Garrison Keillor as a Louisiana Cajun.  I don’t know to what extent the Maryland accent creeps out of my voice as it does out of Robert Ehrlich’s, Barbara Mikulski’s or NPR’s Ann Taylor’s voices, but my roots and boots are here.

Being loudly a Marylander and having the site scream Maryland aren’t just expressions of the infamous Maryland and Baltimore provincialism.  The Maryland references are also part of the effort to avoid practicing outside my bailiwick and to keep my marketing streamlined.  If you have a Kansas unemployment case, I cannot help you.  If the East Lansing or Des Moines or Carson City police caught you allegedly doing 82 in a 55, my heart but not my legal skills goes out to you.  If you don’t have a Maryland issue, calling my office will delay your connection to legal advice though I will try to help you get to a local Bar Association wherever.

As far as the religious wars online between Team Kewl and Team Mamzers, I will simply load my Mossberg 12-gauge, ask all sides to stay off my little green pepper and onion patch, request that all sides honor the much-ignored 3rd Amendment and not quarter their troops in my barn without compensation, and in due season harvest my crops from out of the rolling Maryland piedmont where I planted them.  Veggie fajitas await the diligent….

Getting Clients to the Right Lawyer

One of the best things – best for business, best for professional ethics, best for peace of mind – that an attorney can do sometimes is to get a potential client or current client to the right attorney outside one’s own firm.

How do you do it?  Here’s one approach on how to do it.

1)  Jane Client – good client – calls.  She wants help with, say, a business incorporation or a tax issue or whatever.  You tell Jane that it’s not your primary area of skill (assumed true), but that you would be happy to provide a preliminary consult for her.  Perhaps you charge for this, perhaps you don’t.  By policy, I bill for every consult, but when it’s in an area where I don’t feel strong, I zero-rate the item, demonstrating that I keep track of time, but that I don’t charge when I am not able to give a full professional consult at my own skill set standard.

2)  You consult with Jane at your office not to get the final answer but to assist Jane in narrowing the issues so that the attorney whom you “bring in” – not refer out, “bring in” – can help more efficiently.  “Bringing in” may mean a consult in your office, a consult in that other attorney’s office or both.  Jane gets the red carpet treatment, you value is reinforced to her and your care for your client in bringing in additional professional firepower is reaffirmed.

3)  Jane works with the attorney “brought in” if appropriate, possibly using your notes and probably correcting your superficial oversights and even errors.   Jane gets what she wants, your ally gets what she wants and you avoid getting what you DON’T want – a quagmire of a file outside your main practice area, or worse.

4)  In some states, it may be customary to pay and receive a referral fee.  Many states prohibit, or nearly prohibit, such fees and I (Godfrey) discourage them.  It’s better to have the other attorney thinking about a way to refer an appropriate case back than to get the 25% of whatever fee and mark the moral “bill” paid in full.  Under some states’ ethics rules, an agreement to make mutual referrals may be unenforceable or an ethical violation, but there’s probably nothing wrong with the other attorney trying to look out for an appropriate referral to make back to you, so long as there’s no money changing hands and no formal duty to do so (consult your local ethics authorities to make sure I haven’t just discussed something ruinous.)

5)  The takeaway: the client gets the best service, your value to the client gets reinforced and your value to your ally gets reinforced.  You probably don’t get paid, but instead of no one looking to make referrals to you, you now have two “evangelists”: your grateful client and your grateful “brought in” attorney – and all ethics rules get observed strictly.  In due course, you will get your fees and meanwhile you have just resisted Satan telling you to take that divorce, that business transaction, that could cause you untold nightmares.  You sleep well.

6)  Knowing how to traffic-direct to other attorneys is of immense value in the long term.  Sifting the potential client pool so that you get that which you do most efficiently is critical to your long-term profitability and satisfaction as an attorney.  Getting away from work that is “no good” for you due to skill set limitations, conflicts of interest, practical reasons, etc., is also critical for your profitability, your happiness and the plump health of your law license.  Case sifting and client “sharing”/referrals are part of ethical practice, because if you think you are good at everything you are probably good for nothing.

What you need is an army of people who know you, justifiably trust you, respect you and want you to succeed; the best people to enlist in that army (enlist, because it’s NOT a draft) are happy, sensible attorneys and satisfied clients who respect you and feel respected.  The best way to this, in my view, is to act as a catalysts towards others getting what they want while protecting your own ethic standards, reputation and value to your clients and others.

At the Law Office of Bruce Godfrey, corporations are NOT people.

Recently a leading presidential candidate told a group of hecklers in an unguarded moment,”Corporations are people.”

The primary philosophical guideline of the Law Office of Bruce Godfrey is the exact opposite concept, namely, that people are people and that nothing else in the world is morally entitled to the dignity of “people.” This is a “personalist view” supported by leftists like Ralph Nader and conservatives like the late Pope John Paul II and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

Corporations are not people; people don’t pick their parents or their children by committee, don’t have unlimited life or limited liability, don’t create music, don’t develop religious or counter-religious convictions and cannot spin off their arm, their liver or their knee-cap into a new “person” for convenience.  Corporations are important to the economy, but people through governments created them – NOT the other way around.

Corporations have legal duties to maximize shareholder value; for publicly traded corporations, the heroic self-sacrifice that sometimes characterizes military life or emergency responder teams is often illegal because it can hurt stockholders. While the government can certainly kill people in war or through the death penalty, only people can create more people; governments can create corporations, but corporations are not people.

People come first at the Law Office of Bruce Godfrey because the law firm is committed to its values as a Human-Centered Law Practice. We do business with corporations here, but corporations are not people and publicly traded companies are not clients of this Law Office. We do not use the privileges of Maryland law license to support, defend or augment the goals and priorities of corporate life; we decline to extend the use of our attorney privileges for those purposes.

This is a human-centered law firm; if you are a human, you are welcome to contact us for your needs. If you are a human being who owns and runs a small business, incorporated or not, we may well be able to help you. But we only help humans here, because only humans are people.

Gregg Bernstein Raises Ethical Cloud in Intra-office Football-Spiking Memo

Baltimore Sun, June 2, 2011:

“In the email, {Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg] Bernstein called the convictions of two officers on misdemeanor misconduct charges “in many ways the right result,” though he had pursued felony kidnapping charges that would have brought a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison for the officers. He said the jury’s verdict was “inconsistent” but “that’s the AG’s problem!” a reference to the attorney general’s office, which handles criminal appeals.

In reference to the acquitted officer, who also faced kidnapping charges, Bernstein wrote that “there was no evidence that Hellen in any way participated in the abductions, other than being in the minivan, but shouldn’t that be enough?”

“Oh well; from a culpability standpoint at least, the right defendants were convicted,” he wrote

Whoa, counselor.

If you know you didn’t have probable cause, and that Heller was not one of the culpable ones, why did your office prosecute? Maryland Lawyers’ Rule of Professional Conduct 3.8(a) is not new:

The prosecutor in a criminal case shall: 

(a) refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supported by probable cause.

I won’t comment further. Res ipsa loquitur.

Client Bill of Rights of the Law Office of Bruce Godfrey

In March 2009, I opened my law practice and drafted a Client Bill of Rights. I drafted this Client Bill of Rights immediately after obtaining professional liability insurance, and immediately before I secured office space.

I modeled it very loosely after a Client Bill of Rights of the law firm of Coover and Barr of Columbia, Maryland – an excellent land use and construction law firm where I worked for a short time in 2003.  I recommend that firm for land use and construction litigation in Central Maryland; I do not now practice in those areas.  My firm’s Client Bill of Rights is aimed more specifically to the philosophy and approach of a “human-centered practice of law,” which my law firm espouses.

Since March 2009, I have not modified this Client Bill of Rights; it has been the one constant in a very busy, very dynamic two years in solo practice. I am proud to stand behind the standards in this document.

CLIENT BILL OF RIGHTS
Law Office of Bruce Godfrey
March 2009

This Bill of Rights represents the policies of the Law Office of Bruce Godfrey to all Clients in all matters. In the event that the Maryland Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct prescribe a higher standard, the Law Office follows the higher standard.

1. All Clients have the right to the Golden Rule at all times. The Law Office must and will do unto the Client as we would have done unto us, and if the Law Office would find something objectionable or unfair if done to us or to our families or friends, we do not do that in any Client’s case. This Right governs all other Rights.

2. All Clients have the right to a clear and simple explanation of our work and how fees are charged.

3. All Clients have the right to the Law Office’s best knowledge, best judgment and best effort.

4. All Clients have the right to solid competence in everything that the Law Office does and to excellence when the Law Office promises excellence.

5. All Clients have the right to accountability from the Law Office. If the Law Office ever fails to deliver as agreed or required, the Law Office is the first to own responsibility for the failure.

6. All Clients have the right to strict confidentiality in their communications with the Law Office. Clients sometimes tell attorneys what they won’t tell their spouses or their clergy when they seek legal help, and the Law Office must always honor that trust strictly.

7. All Clients have the right to prompt follow-up to their phone calls or other contacts; the Law Office returns client calls within 24 hours, period.

8. All Clients have the right to efficient service, both as to efficient, timely completion of their work and as to efficient use of billable time.

Edited March 2009. Copyright 2009 Law Office of Bruce Godfrey and Theodore Bruce Godfrey, Esq.

Two Maryland Attorneys Charged with Child Pornography Charges

I was extremely disheartened to learn that two Maryland attorneys were charged in federal court with child pornography possession recently.  I won’t name here but the identities of the defendants are available in the link above; the cases are unrelated.

There are approximately 20,000 licensed attorneys in Maryland, so perhaps 1 in 10,000 is not the worst imaginable ratio, but it still sickens me.  As I sit here writing – taking an early break at a coffee house in beautiful Owings Mills from a very early rise to go work on my office administration issues today – I want to walk to the 4-foot high trash can near the door and vomit into it for a half hour.

10,000 lawyer jokes aside, most lawyers are ethical, honest and law-abiding, if not always the best social company.  Some attorneys are ethical and honest because that’s their characters; others are personally indifferent but play by the rules in order not to get their lives and careers ruined.  But by and large, lawyers play by the rules of decent, law-abiding society.

When attorneys commit crimes or career-ending mistakes, it’s almost always either about client money, about getting overwhelmingly swamped and drowning professionally or violating some bright-line professional rule specific to the legal profession (e.g. don’t dare even think about borrowing from clients’ escrowed funds for non-client or unauthorized purposes.)  To get thrown out of the profession – I don’t mean getting a reprimand or a 30 day suspension, but getting disbarred or indefinitely suspended – you usually have to do something fraudulent, something to defalcate client money, something felonious.  Even simple possession of illegal drugs – especially marijuana – is unlikely to end a career in many states, through one can certainly expect disciplinary consequences.

Not everyone charged with child pornography charges is guilty, of course.  The cases are complex.  It is conceivable that one could load an image into one’s computer without knowing of its existence or its contents.  On the other hand, the U.S. Attorneys are known for their conservatism in their charging documents generally; they tend to follow the Powell doctrine of not filing charges unless the evidence is quite powerful, because they desperately hate to lose.  Most federal crimes are also state crimes and the federal government is more than happy to cherry-pick its cases for the biggest, the worst and the most overwhelmingly provable.

While my practice by policy does not handle any non-consensual sex crime charges, the website of respect criminal defense attorney James Crawford, Esquire, of Baltimore County may give some idea of the issues involved, such as the use of specific search terms, who had access to the computer when, etc.  It is conceivable to me that someone could download an image without knowing it, such as we download viruses without knowing it, and that the same sociopaths who put viruses on our computers could spread illegal images for the same destructive sense of sport.  But I do not see how any attorney recovers professionally from child pornography charges even after a not guilty verdict on all charges; the very thought of such charges just sickens me in my core both as a father and as a member of the Maryland and DC Bars.  One of the two attorneys involved just consent to disbarment in MD last month; the other one is a 1985 admittee, someone who by age and experience easily could have been my interviewer at my character committee interview when I applied for the Maryland Bar.

Until I read of these charges, I joked that attorneys were a better bunch than clergy because you didn’t hear about Bar Associations or law firms getting near-bankrupted for sex abuse and related cover-up charges, as has happened with several Roman Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and elsewhere (not merely for the abuse, but for the hierarchical cover-ups facilitating and protecting the abusers.)

To be fair to the Catholic Church, Dateline NBC”s “To Catch a Predator” series showing a sting operation on sexual predators on the youth caught a Protestant youth minister and a Maryland rabbi, but no Catholic clergy.  The Orthodox Church in America, one of many Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions in the U.S., recently placed its young and dynamic hierarch Metropolitan +JONAH on a mandatory leave of absence due to alleged mismanagement of sexual abuse issues in his church, among other issues.  The Jewish Times of Baltimore has published many articles dealing with sexual predation by rabbis and other persons of authority.  Those who blame Roman Catholic priestly celibacy as the source of sexual predation in the church of Rome would do well to consider that Protestant ministers can marry even after ordination, rabbis are almost always married as is normative universally in Jewish life and Orthodox Christian parish clergy are drawn predominantly from the ranks of married seminary graduates.

Point of the foregoing: clergy sexual abuse not just a Roman Catholic issue.  But I had thought lawyers were a better bunch, answerable in this life to ethical codes and public discipline with no confessional seal to conceal the truth, and these charges undercut my perhaps poorly-founded conceit and pride as an attorney.  Far more important than any professional or vocational conceit of course is the stark fact: child pornography is manufactured through the deliberate abuse of children for profit or the narcissistic pleasure of the manufacturer and of whoever receives the manufactured product.

Now if you will excuse me, I have an urgent appointment with a garbage can.