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The scary, but true, answer to that question is that you cannot know all of the time. There are things to look for, however, which will show whether your lawyer is capable of giving you good advice, or relatively incapable of doing so, and we will go into these shortly.

When you ask a lawyer for advice, it is because you do not know what the answer to your question is. If you do not know the answer, you cannot know whether the answer the lawyer gives is true or false, that is, whether the advice is good or bad. This presupposes, too, that there is only one appropriate course of action in your situation. This is typically not the case, which is why "second opinions" are not of much use in the milieu of the law.

Good advice is a series of recommendations which lead you to a practical resolution of your problem. When the advice is given, no one knows whether it is good yet, because it has not been implemented. If the character of the result is your standard of measurement, then you must understand that only when the advice is implemented and the result can be assessed, can the judgment "good" or "bad" be made. This is also known as Monday morning quarterbacking.

We will go into this at greater length later, but for now it is enough to say that it is more important to develop a professional relationship with a lawyer whose advice you trust, the same as you would with a doctor, architect, financial adviser or property manager. Aside from professional and business references, the following are some things you need to look for in deciding whether you should engage a lawyer you have not dealt with in the past, or continue a relationship with a lawyer whose advice you may now be questioning.

You will probably get fine quality work from a lawyer if he:

Offers you choices of several different courses of action in most cases

Emphasizes practical solutions and litigation avoidance

Shows an awareness of cost as compared to benefit and emphasizes economy (but not at the expense of quality)

Insists upon analyzing the immediate problem in light of your entire pattern of doing business and proposes ways to avoid similar problems in the future

Provides timely (minimum monthly) billing invoices that Accurately reflect what he has done

Is willing to admit he may be wrong and discard or modify a course of action if it proves unsatisfactory

Insists upon receiving his agreed reward

You probably will not get fine quality work from a lawyer if he:

Emphasizes how much he cares about you, rather than about solving your problem

Confidently predicts outcomes of complex courses of action when he cannot even predict what his wife will serve for dinner

Quotes odds: "I’d say you have a 90% chance of..."

Brags about how intimately he knows the judges and politicians in town

Continues to represent you when you continually reject his advice, or modifies his advice in major ways so you will like what he has to say

Tells you not to worry without telling you why you shouldn’t

Frequently slashes his fees when they are questioned

Sporadically sends you invoices, or invoices that are hard to understand

A lawyer who displays more of the first set of qualities than the second shows a solid confidence in his own abilities, but an understanding that his prescriptions have to be practical. He will bill fairly, though perhaps not cheaply. A lawyer who displays more of the second set of qualities than the first has little confidence in himself, is going to be a "yes" man, and is constantly slashing fees because he has no idea what he is worth. You may get him cheap, but he will probably not do you much good.

At this point a few words about what a lawyer’s product is may be of help. The lawyer deals in human nature. Some uninformed individuals view the legal system as a sort of vending machine; you put money into it, push one of the red buttons, and what you want comes out. As long as you insert the money and push the right button, the result is assured. This is not the case. The lawyer’s job is to deal in human nature. Every legal problem is a people problem, and its solution involves influencing their behavior through a variety of threats, promises, actions, and inaction. People are not machines, they are emotional, arbitrary, intelligent, thoughtful, generous, open minded, all these and more in varying degrees and in the same person. Which of these qualities will predominate and in what degree at any given time it is impossible to predict.

Now, certainly there are legal functions which are virtually automatic, but these do not constitute the practice of law, and have little to do with the solicitation of advice. These purely ministerial tasks, such as preparing routine corporate filings, adoption papers, or eviction pleadings, are usually delegated to secretaries and paralegals nowadays. The lawyer’s job is in assisting in making the decision if, how, and when to incorporate, to adopt, or to evict. He can guarantee that the corporate papers will be properly filled out, or that the adoption papers will be in order, or that the eviction pleadings will be legally sufficient, but he cannot guarantee what third persons affected by these documents will do in response. The outcome is also influenced heavily by the degree to which the client has procrastinated in obtaining legal advice.

What the lawyer offers is his time, experience and objectivity. If he offers all three he will be able to assist you reaching intelligent decisions. He will also be able to ameliorate the inevitable unforeseen results of such decisions. This is what you are buying when you seek your lawyer’s advice. If you are receiving this kind of guidance, then your lawyer is giving you good advice, despite the occasional mishap.

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