RTL’s Real Truth About the Law # 2: A law degree and license could be substituted by a smart guy studying the law really really hard, right…?
This seems like an easy answer, but I can’t tell you how many people come to me for advice AFTER they elected not to hire a lawyer simply because they thought they were smart enough to handle the matter themselves without an attorney. Unfortunately, most of these incidents come to my attention months into a case after a self-represented client has already done irreparable harm to an otherwise good case, and that’s the simple real truth about the law.
Lawyer vs. Attorney – Yes, There’s a Difference
The best way to understand why a “man who represents himself has a fool for a client” is to understand the difference between a ‘lawyer’ and an ‘attorney’. Is there really a difference? Actually, yes. And for the purpose of this discussion it’s not simply a semantic one; it’s an essential one. A ‘lawyer’ is a person well versed and/or educated about the law. A woman who graduates law school automatically qualifies as a ‘lawyer’. She is not; however, an ‘attorney’… not yet. A ‘lawyer’ can talk to you ‘about’ the law just as anyone who bones up on a subject can talk about it, perhaps even intelligently. But they cannot act on BEHALF of you in any real legal context, like in a courtroom or a deposition.
Power of Attorney
It’s called ‘power of attorney’, and just like the familiar paper that bears its name, it’s the only means by which one is allowed to legally act on behalf, or better put, in place, of another. In order to have someone act legally on your behalf, you have to trust that person implicitly. Consider what it would take for you to turn over legal access to all your bank accounts in case you were incapacitated. That’s a tremendous amount of trust indeed. But that’s exactly the kind of trust you should invest and seek out in a good attorney.
When Is an Exam Not Just an Exam?
When it’s a Bar exam. You see the Bar exam is not just a test to determine if a ‘lawyer’ is educated enough to be an ‘attorney’. It is also a right of passage to determine if one is qualified to be an ‘attorney’. It is one thing to know the ‘law’. But to know it and how to apply it on behalf of others on important matters of money and life is a much higher standard of care. Acting on behalf of others professionally creates a fiduciary relationship, that is, it involves a position of immense trust to which ethics, character and reputation are paramount. It’s not just about PASSING such an academic test. It’s about meeting credentials of professional integrity and reputation before you are even ALLOWED to take such an exam.
A Licensed Lawyer vs. a Good Lawyer
Unfortunately, a license to practice law may ALLOW someone to practice law, but it doesn’t necessarily make them a good lawyer. Certifications do a lot to narrow the field of the obvious bad apples, but no matter how many licensing hoops regulators create, there will simply never be one that measures integrity. It is that one intangible quality that all good attorneys must have for which only time and reputation are the benchmarks. And that is precisely why it is so crucial to choose your attorney carefully.
What This Ultimately Means to You
Being a good attorney is a position of trust which requires far more than simply being ‘smart’ or even ‘knowing the law’. It involves being able to objectively act on another’s behalf ethically and make good choices in difficult circumstances and it involves the integrity to do so exclusively for the client’s benefit and no one else. These are decisions that are often clouded by personal factors of emotion and sentiment which more often than not run counter to a client’s best legal interests. It is where sound unbiased advice and counsel are not only an advantage, but are absolutely paramount to making good legal decisions. There are good attorneys and there are bad attorneys; that’s simply a fact of life. But there are far too many bad ones and far too few good ones and a good attorney can considerably improve your situation, while a bad one can only make matters much worse.
And that’s the real truth about the law.