TV Law vs. Practice of Law
All too often, people’s perceptions and beliefs about lawyers and the practice of law are formed from watching any number of TV shows about the practice of law. So let’s take some time to dispel some myths that people might believe and take a look at the reality of practicing law.
The Law is Not Fast Paced
Not that I watch many TV legal shows, but it typically seems that most matters are resolved quickly – proceeding from initial meeting with the client to trial in matter of weeks. Reality is quite different, because the law moves about as quickly as my first computer from 1985.
Most lawsuits in Sangamon County take at least a year, typically more, to resolve. Initial pleadings and motions can take months, and then there’s discovery (the exchange of information between parties – both written and through depositions). After that, most cases then proceed to summary judgment – written motions asking the court to find that, as a matter of law, one party wins because there are no issues of fact to be resolved. If unsuccessful in that regard, then there’s a matter of scheduling a trial – which can be difficult because criminal matters take priority due to the guaranty of a speedy trial in criminal matters. Throw in the fact that continuances are routinely granted, and you can see why the process takes so long.
Transactional matters (like the purchase or sale of real estate) are generally on a more accelerated timetable. But even with non-litigation matters things like due diligence (surveys, inspections, title work) take longer than most clients expect.
Clients need to have their expectations tempered. Sure, it can be true that “justice delayed is justice denied” in some instances. But the reality is that our American justice and legal system isn’t always as speedy as a client would like or expect.
Lawyers Are Not Experts in Everything
It seems like TV lawyers are able to handle death penalty criminal trials one week, complex commercial litigation the next, and then merger and acquisition work involving two publicly traded companies in the third week. I think that’s a recipe for disaster in the real world.
First, clients need to understand that there’s more to the law than the litigation that’s typically seen on TV. There are all sorts of other areas of law – tax, real estate, oil and gas, estate planning, appeals, etc. But who would want to watch a one hour show about the trials and tribulations of a wealthy couple’s estate planning decisions? There’s little drama in much of the law.
Second, I generally tell clients that a lawyer who professes to be able to handle every area of the law won’t be able to do so in a manner that will best serve the client. Because the reality today is that the law is becoming increasingly complex, and there’s simply too much to be able to keep up with.
Third, even if your lawyer can take the time to become well-versed in a particular area of law, that doesn’t mean it will be cost effective for you. That’s why I tell my clients that if I don’t feel I (or other members of my firm) have a particular familiarity with an area of law, that I will refer them to someone who does. Sometimes, with niche areas of the law, that means reaching out to an attorney in Chicago or St. Louis where lawyers have more freedom to concentrate in discrete areas of law thanks to a larger pool of clients.
What Do You Call The Doctor Who Graduated Last In Medical School?
Why, you call him or her Doctor! My point is that there’s a wide spectrum of lawyers out there, and not all lawyers are as skilled and accomplished as others.
So don’t be afraid to ask your lawyer about his or her education and experience. Ask if they’ve ever handled a case like yours. Ask for referrals. Go to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (www.iardc.org) and see if your lawyer has been disciplined before. Be an informed consumer of legal services and don’t just assume that all lawyers are equally competent.
Not Everything Ends Up In Court
Our judicial system encourages parties to resolve disputes outside of the courtroom. Sometimes clients are adamant that they want their “day in court” and are upset that their lawyer hasn’t yet done so. The reality is that the lawyer is working behind the scenes to try to resolve their matter in the most effective way possible and in a manner most favorable to the client. A high percentage of cases never actually get filed at court, and of those that do a high percentage get settled before trial. So clients need to understand that having that “day in court” isn’t always in the cards.
Trials Aren’t All That Exciting
Few trials result in that Perry Mason moment where the witness, withering under brutal cross examination, recants his testimony in a dramatic fashion with the judge then ruling from the bench with a verdict for one party.
No, compared to TV trials, most trials are snoozefests. The lawyers for both parties have goals laid out well in advance, with questions carefully planned and worded. In most instances, the significance of those questions and answers won’t become evident until closing arguments when everything is tied together.
And speaking of closing arguments, they’re rarely just five minutes long. They can be long – sometimes an hour, two or even more. A closing argument is like watching an attorney put together a puzzle – you’ll see the big picture by the end, but until then it’s just a lot of little pieces that only slowly start to fit together.
Some of The Conduct You See on TV Would Get a Lawyer Disciplined
Lawyers in Illinois are held to a strict code of ethical conduct. Lawyers who violate that code can be disciplined by our Supreme Court and can be suspended from the practice of even barred from practicing law again. Some of the dodgier things lawyers do on TV would almost certainly draw the ire of our Supreme Court. Just know that there’s a system in place in Illinois to regulate and monitor lawyer misconduct.