Friday, March 19, 2010

The Purpose of a Lawyer

The Purpose of a Lawyer

A lawyer is a professional.  This means that, instead of rolling the dice and playing for all or nothing, clients place their money (a lot of their money) on someone who has spent years studying and practicing this sort of thing.  Because this person will have been interested in learning about the kinds of extreme failures that could subject him/her to malpractice liability, odds are good that his/her errors will not be too dramatic.

On the other hand, unfortunately, a professional is someone who handles the same sort of case day after day, year after year.  S/he is not necessarily very interested in the details of the client’s problem.  To borrow an example from another field, imagine a psychological specialist who is currently treating a dozen patients for grief related to the deaths of their loved ones.  This specialist may understandably confuse the names and other details of these cases from time to time, or may fall asleep during sessions after a big lunch.  Some clients will find this sort of thing distressing.  The point is, the attorney will not share the client’s interest in the case, and thus will not ride herd on everything to the extent the client might prefer.

Professional training reduces the worst-scenario costs, then, by avoiding terrible outcomes, in exchange for increasing the total numbers of client irritants:  of things that clients don’t understand, of fears that fester in their dreams, of details that the attorney mishandles, and of opportunities that slip through the cracks.  Clients become frustrated because, in many cases, their attorneys do not return their calls.  Then again, the attorney invariably has an answering machine or voicemail on which clients can vent their frustration, usually at much lower cost than if the client were actually keeping the attorney on the phone.

In short, the purpose of a lawyer, down through the centuries, has been to help sincere people to transition away from impractical expectations of truth and justice, and to realize how much their involvement with the professional system of justice will actually cost – so that, in the end, they will be grateful that it did not cost more.

Legal Specialties

Lawyers go through roughly similar educational and training processes across the country.  That said, there are a number of specialized fields of legal practice, and those fields do sometimes create their own unique sorts of situations for clients.  A few examples are provided here, so as to give some sense of what the educated client should watch out for.

Divorce.  The primary purpose of divorce law is to make the parties as angry as possible, for as long as possible.  This insures that the couple will not inadvertently become reconciled, in which case their assets might be withdrawn from the jurisprudential maw before they can be properly researched and rifled; it maximizes the incentives for warring spouses to retaliate against one another by having sex with their attorneys; and it also protects attorneys from the risk that the parties will remain on speaking terms and will thus be able to compare notes and detect inconsistencies in their attorneys’ statements.  By this arrangement, the practice of divorce law serves the important social policy of encouraging people of modest means to avoid divorce law.

Criminal Law.  Criminal law is that branch of legal practice in which wealthy people pay enormous sums to prove that they are innocent.  (An obscure subpart of criminal practice deals with those less important instances in which multitudes who cannot afford criminal defense attorneys are given opportunities to pay fines and/or go to prison for relatively acceptable periods of time.)  Mainstream criminal practice thus serves as an important resource for the generation of cultural narratives about law (in e.g., books and films), through which members of the public learn that the legal system is good and that their own experiences with it are exceptions.

Bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy is a process in which, as in criminal law, clients of sufficient means must pay a substantial retainer up-front to prove that they are innocent of accusations against them.  One difference from criminal practice is that bankruptcy law allows advance planning, prior to any crimes that may be committed, and is therefore more amenable to inferior legal talent, whereas the rules of criminal law mandate that the client must first commit the wrong, in order to see what it is like, and can only then commence the task of denying it.

Constitutional Law.  This final example of a legal specialty is one of the most prestigious of all.  Constitutional lawyers strive on behalf of those fundamental principles by which a proud nation of 300 million people can remain divisively united.  As in personal injury law (which is not covered in this brief survey), constitutional law employs a lottery system where, out of millions of players, few ordinary people will find attorneys who are willing to take their cases on an affordable basis; and of those few, very few achieve ultimate fame and fortune.  Clients should take care to minimize their exposure to constitutional law, insofar as its grand scale often aggravates the sorts of delusional thinking (regarding e.g., truth, justice) noted above, provoking dangerous departures from day-to-day realities of the justice system.

Client Education

As the preceding remarks indicate, attorneys frequently bear a heavy burden of educating their clients in the esoteric principles and procedures of law.  For example, it is often not easy for an unsophisticated person to grasp just how efficient it is to resolve disputes by simply increasing costs and delays until, as it turns out, 95% of disputes can be settled without any trial at all.  That is, 95% of the number of disputes taken to court; that number itself constitutes only a fraction of the far more numerous disputes that, thanks to the rule of law, are economically resolved without any judicial involvement at all, often through inexpensively self-administered psychological internalizations.  Where extrajudicial dispute resolution entails primitively obscene and violent measures due to the presumed inability to afford any other approach, civic-minded attorneys contribute to public legal education by advising poor people, through the media, to adopt cunning strategies of retribution that are more appropriate in a civilized society.

Fortunately, the process of client education is now being assisted by modern advances in court management and by technological innovations that make law more accessible.  Thanks to the Internet, clients now have rapid, direct access to the opinions in which judges explain their application of medieval principles.  Moreover, as legal thinking continues to pervade everyday social intercourse, it is slowly eliminating logical errors attributable to common sense, so that ordinary people gradually find it more natural to reject problematic spontaneity and to rely, instead, upon the law’s rich traditions of cautious, empirically unsupported reasoning.


Attorney-client communications can be frustrating on both sides.  Clients frequently approach the relationship with unrealistic expectations that the attorney may feel obliged to defuse slowly, over a period of weeks or months, so that the client does not experience an epiphany that might provoke him/her to bail out abruptly.

Attorneys who try to educate clients in the law often come up against a brick wall, as clients cling to impractical forms of reasoning and vague ideas about largely irrelevant abstract principles.  Specialized areas of law add further complications.  Attorney-client communication may be best understood as a process by which attorneys dictate capsule summaries of legal culture to people of inferior cultures who can barely understand the benefits that the law provides, much less produce such benefits for themselves.