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How to spot a crooked lawyer

The bottom end of the legal profession is packed with incompetents. The top end is packed with highly competent people who, by virtue of the knowledge they possess, are dangerous to their clients, confidence in the law, and the system of administration of justice itself. Many of them are criminals in disguise.

The most important quality a client requires in his lawyer, although he may not know it, is integrity. And where clients and Judges do understand this, a society will have better laws and a more admired - and hence more prosperous - legal system. What is integrity? It is a willingness to admit mistakes in the face of a complex system of regulations; an essential honesty to what one does (not to lie when making statements in one's own name); a willingness, in one's own name, to abide by the spirit of good law and policy and to face down attempts to denude law and the demands of society by evading its provisions: at least in one's own name. Technical excellence is taken for granted at the higher ends of practice of the legal profession, although there are some lacunae. The value of professional integrity, by contrast, confirms legal practice as a vocation in which there are a series of ethical values regarded as more important than the naked pursuit of profit.


Every client approaching a relationship with a lawyer must assess for themselves whether that lawyer has integrity; and whether they want a lawyer with integrity. Clients without integrity generally choose lawyers without integrity. So the best way of finding a lawyer without integrity is to look at his or her existing or past clients and to see a book of work undertaken on behalf of people without a shred of integrity. Lawyers fit their clients like gloves fit on the hands of their wearers. It is possible to find good lawyers who despise their clients, particularly in legal systems that embrace the so-called "cab rank" rule of professional ethics whereby a lawyer is not permitted to turn down a client solely on the grounds of distaste. Originally designed as a rule to assist the indigent when charged with serious criminal offences to ensure that they would receive a competent defence, it hardly applies in a world of oligarchs and transnational corporations.


Nevertheless relationships between good lawyers and bad clients seldom last long. That is because the lawyer-client relationship is a partnership for business and purposes, behind which lie values; and where those values are not shared, the ways of doing business will not be compatible and the tension in goals to be achieved between lawyer and client will rupture the relationship.


Therefore when considering hiring new lawyers, there are two things one ought to do. Firstly one ought to speak to other clients of the lawyers one is proposing to engage, or other professional contacts, and form a view about the people you speak to. Do they share your values? Ask less about the lawyers (lawyers all have reputations, and people's opinions about individual lawyers vary widely; clients' opinions of their lawyers can oscillate from one case or even one bill to the next) and more about the clients or the other professional contacts. Do they seem to be people who share your values? If they do, then the lawyers are likely to share your values as well.


Secondly, you should do some sort of quality check on the proposed lawyers' technical work. Ask for examples of their written work in important cases. For the most part, you pay lawyers to write; to a lesser extent, to speak. Do they have good reputations as writers and speakers? If they do, then they are probably technically proficient lawyers. Good lawyers do not need to be pre-familiar with your business or affairs; they can learn all that when you instruct them on a matter, and then cast off that knowledge as quickly as they acquired it once the affair is concluded.


Recall that lawyers are the people who came top of their class at school and university. They tend to be good at reading and absorbing material quickly. At the commercial and international level, they also have substantial experience of how every sort of organisation works. That is because in the course of their practice, they have peered into client organisations and seen everything before. It is very hard to surprise an experienced lawyer. They will be thinking, as they feign surprise, "I remember a case like that 20 years ago." You choose lawyers because they are good at law, not because they are good at something else.


Lawyers need good judgment under pressure. This is a quality that comes of experience. They need skill in managing difficult people to undertake complex projects. This also comes of experience. And they need to share your view of the world. Contrary to myth, you do not need a good personal relationship with your lawyer. Only bad lawyers offer to wine and dine their clients; good lawyers consider it a waste of time. The market rate for a lawyer is a function of how busy he is.


Bad lawyers, often located in petty jurisdictions, go round paying funds to political parties to achieve imagined results; seek to corrupt the judiciary through lunches and dinners; overlook forgery of documents and signatures, and the use of illegitimate shell companies; and end up participating in the crimes of their clients. They may be paid handsomely for their toils; that is not your affair as a prospective client. Stay away from them, unless you wish to be tarred with the brush of dishonesty which tar smears their faces and is visible for miles across the market, throughout professional associations and beyond. Unethical lawyers tar the profession as a whole, which is unjust for the rest of us. They are but spiders, menials weaving webs for their clients' unethical goals. When their clients fade, their webs will crumble. Yet they should be stigmatised, to maintain that fragile institution the quality of justice wherever it exists.

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