In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: How Do You Know If You’re A Bad Lawyer?

If you took a poll in which you had to answer how good a lawyer you are, how would you rank yourself — below average, average, or above average? With the “illusory superiority” phenomenon at work, more than 50% of you would respond that you’re an above average lawyer. Now, you don’t have to be good at math to figure out that something’s not quite right here.

Because I care about my ATL readers, I’ve decided to make it my mission in this post to enlighten those of you below average lawyers as to your not-so-great-as-you-think-ness. The key to getting around illusory superiority is to not rely on your own fallible opinion of yourself. Instead, look to other more objective indications of your inferiority.

What are some signs that you may be a below average lawyer?

You CYA all the time. All lawyers CYA to some degree at work. I mean, we are lawyers after all. “Risk averse” is our middle name (in addition to “anal retentive” and “grammar police”). But there are some of you though who go to all lengths to not be held responsible for anything. These are people who hate to ever express a final legal recommendation or opinion on an issue, especially in writing. Their MO is to punt it somehow into someone else’s court and hope to God it never comes back. When forced to finally give a recommendation, they are only comfortable with the absolute safest option because if they recommend any other, something may go wrong and they may get blamed.

You hide behind formality and process. These lawyers overuse words like “whereas,” “hereinafter,” and “attached hereto.” Utilizing these anachronisms in contracts is bad enough. Is it really necessary to use them in regular conversation? Similar to the CYA lawyers described above, they also refuse to offer any type of advice or opinion unless corporate process is strictly followed: “Sorry, I can’t possibly provide an opinion on any part of the contract because I’m waiting for Bill in Accounting to let us know what his comments are to the antipenultimate word in Section 3(A)(II)(k)(8)(x) thereof….”

You’re resistant to change. Some of you are comfortable only doing things the way they’ve been approved and done before — whether it’s contract templates or processes — regardless of the scenario. You become angry when others have the audacity to suggest that there may be better alternatives. This ship has been running fine this way for 25 years, you think. Why change now? Besides, typewriter ribbons are way cheaper than computers!

Clients don’t include you in their conversations. Even if you have excellent legal acumen, it’s not enough to be a good legal service provider. Good lawyers nurture soft skills that help them to win their clients’ trust and respect. If you find that business clients are constantly leaving you out of the conversation, are continually resistant to your advice, or just flat out don’t like you, then chances are it’s not them, it’s you. (In fact, it was also you, not her, when you and your girlfriend broke up. A “sorry” and soft skills could’ve helped there as well.)

You have no comments a lot of the time. Issues that arise and affect companies are varied and dynamic. If you’re reading proposals, reviewing contracts for new relationships, or evaluating a business plan for new issues, you should have more to say than, “Uh, looks good — make it so.” If you don’t have much to say most of the time, it’s not because you were lucky enough to have clients who possess an innate talent for avoiding legal issues. It means you either aren’t spotting the issues or aren’t understanding what’s being proposed.

You engage in unethical behavior. These behaviors can range from those that seem minor like telling small lies or making misleading statements to avoiding issues that you know you should address and even knowingly assisting your client in breaking the law or avoiding corporate compliance processes. Despite lawyer jokes to the contrary, companies expect their lawyers to guide them in ethical practices. White lies are for home for when your significant other asks you if the dress makes her butt look fat.

It’s never fun hear about your shortcomings. However, I’m not recommending that you work on improving yourself. I mean, if all of you below average lawyers become better practitioners, then the overall average of good lawyerness will increase, which just puts even more pressure on all of the rest of us to stay above average. Instead, what I’d really like you to do is add more incompetence to your practice and help lower that bar. Perhaps gossip about that upcoming restructuring in a crowded elevator or public establishment or shoot off some angry emails to a couple of colleagues? Shoot me an email if you’d like more suggestions on increasing your legal incompetence or feel free comment with your ideas own below.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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