The title of today’s column comes from an e-mail I recently saw. The e-mail read, in its entirety: “Thanks for providing a copy of the statute. Do you have any advice?”
That cracked me up. (I crack up easily.) Doesn’t this e-mail exemplify a recurring problem among lawyers asked for advice? Someone asks a question; the lawyer locates the relevant statute; and the lawyer then sends along the text of the statute as though that answers the question. The lawyer may have provided information, but he almost surely did not actually help the client (which was probably the goal).
I’m not sure whether it’s laziness, cowardice, or incompetence, but something causes many lawyers routinely to transmit information without supplying legal advice.
Here’s another example (which also cracks me up):
I see e-mails all the time that say: “Something happened. Here’s the description of what happened. Any thoughts?”
This is not giving legal advice. This is transmitting information and then completely abdicating the lawyer’s obligation to think through the issue, prepare an intelligent response or plan of action, and move the ball. It is not helpful to describe some facts and then send an e-mail asking the recipient to solve the problem. And it’s a career-limiting strategy to have people think of you as “the person who has never actually solved a problem, and spends his life asking others for help.”
I see other e-mails that say: “In the attached brief, our opponent argues X.” Very nice. But is “X” right, or is it wrong? Do we have an answer? If we have an answer, what is it? Or are we dead men walking? If so, tell me (although, if that’s your conclusion, find the fortitude to tell me by phone). If you simply describe the other side’s position, you’ve done no more than transmit information, which the kid down the block could do at a better price. (Or we could eliminate the middleman entirely, and get ourselves added to the service list.) If you’re a lawyer, not a mail carrier, then you can’t just deliver messages; you must provide advice.
Maybe I’ve slightly overstated my point here. If the request is, “Please send me a copy of section 432.5 of the California Labor Code,” then the correct response may (possibly) be, “As you requested, I have attached section 432.5 of the California Labor Code.” But even then, it’s likely that the correct response includes a whisper of legal advice: “That section confirms your thought . . . ” or “This differs from the situation we considered last week . . . ” or something — anything — that displays a touch of sentience.
I don’t know what causes lawyers to suffer from “mail carrier syndrome.” Perhaps many lawyers are lazy and refuse to think. Perhaps lawyers are cowards, unwilling to provide advice for fear their ideas may be wrong. Perhaps many lawyers are incompetent.
But you, at least, can no longer claim ignorance. You’re on notice: You’re a lawyer, for heaven’s sake. Act the part.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.