NW Law FirmCan Business Lawyers Afford to Practice “Defensively”?
Stoel Rives LLP
by Kenneth Odza
I appreciate why lawyers practice defensively. We are risk adverse as a profession. But is this what our clients want from us? After all, our clients are usually in a risk-taking position when they seek our advice in the first place. In today’s business climate, competition in almost ever sector is fierce to say the least. Our business clients are often in the position where they need to innovate, stay ahead of the competition or go extinct. For them, a “blue ocean” strategy is often the only pathway for survival.
Here’s a common scenario in the practice of business law: client asks a question or poses a problem to his lawyer. Lawyer responds with a menu of options to solve problem. Lawyer goes through pros and cons of each but backs away from making a strong recommendation (or recommends the most risk-adverse solution). Lawyer feels that it’s the client’s choice (which it is) and also wants to avoid blame if the recommendation is wrong (lawyer will be blamed anyway). Client feels dissatisfied because:
a. Client may not share the expertise/experience of his lawyer and wants a stronger recommendation; or
b. Client feels that lawyer may not be interested in really understanding the problem and/or the client’s business; or
c. Client feels that lawyer is unwilling to put “skin in the game” and share the risk with the client; or
d. All of the above.
In litigation, defensive practice of law often comes in the form of “scorched earth” discovery and unnecessary motion practice. Attorneys tell their clients that they can’t leave a stone unturned to prepare the case for trial (though they might not have a clue as to their trial strategy). Lawyers tell their clients that they can forgo the deposition but it’s “risky.” Although the lawyer advises the client that failure to conduct expensive discovery practice is “risky,” the lawyer may be reluctant to help quantify the risk for the client. And if the lawyer is paid hourly, little incentive exists for the lawyer to make hard decisions in litigation as to what’s necessary to try the case and what may not be. So the end result may be bloated fees and a disgruntled client (and often a bad result).
As outside counsel, we need to ask why clients hire us. Do they hire us to prescribe multiple choice solutions without a real recommendation or a path of scorched-earth litigation? Or do our clients hire us because (1) we have expertise, creativity and time that the client may not have in house and (2) the client expects us to solve its problem? With the legal monopoly threatened (look no further than the dramatic changes in professional rules in Great Britain), don’t we have to provide clients the service they want? Your comments and thoughts are most welcome.
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