I think being a lawyer rots your brain

… keeping in mind that my father and brother are lawyers.

This week I had a bit of a legal headache revolving around selling a car to someone from out of state. As part of trying to resolve that, I posted on a forum that supposedly gave expert legal advice. In a non-binding way, of course.

It was… not helpful. I got a bunch of replies from people who did not, in fact, know anything about the legal specifics of selling a car to an out-of-stater. If any of them had known, they could have told me what I eventually found out: that what the buyer’s bank was requesting was legally pointless. By far the least helpful replies were a couple of people who focused on my use of specific words.

I’ve been a software developer, and part of that is that I’ve occasionally had to do technical support. The #1 goal when doing technical support is to solve the client’s problem. Often, part of good technical support is determining the underlying problem when the client isn’t communicating the problem well. Which is not the client’s fault if they are not experts. They may not know how, so my job may include asking the right questions if the problem is unclear.

While I think I did, in fact, convey my problem and what I needed well, that’s irrelevant. Good tech support does not involve arguing with the client about what they said, or focusing on the definitions of phrases like “standard procedure” or “simpler procedure” rather than what the client needs.

However, being a lawyer frequently does. Contract law often involves parsing words and arguing for literal interpretations of what a contract says rather than what the signers intended. Law school teaches you to focus on winning rather than being helpful. My father felt that was bullshit, and for the brief time he was doing civil law, he tried to focus on reaching an agreement that was good for both parties, rather solely on what was best for his client. My younger brother bought heavily into it - he likes telling stories about how hardball he played, even when his playing hardball meant they never reached an agreement.

I’m pretty sure that’s what I was seeing on that forum. Lawyers being lawyers even when fighting and word-parsing was inappropriate.

Being a lawyer may not rot your brain, but I’m pretty sure it rots your soul.

Also, you forgot that the number one concern for lawyers is not solving your problem: it’s billable hours.

I’ve played board games with several very nice people who happened to also be lawyers. But I’ve met a few that are the stereotype of what a lawyer can be: they have to win every discussion (no matter how badly they lost), they can’t admit ever doing anything wrong, believe the truth is whatever you can convince people is the truth (which means they’ll deny anything inconvenient to their argument), and always try to maintain plausible deniability (again, whether they did or didn’t, they’ll deny it, even if you shove the message they wrote under their nose).

As to free legal advice - hey, it was worth what you paid for it. ;-)

There’s a reason Philosophy and Law are kissing cousins. Traditional Philosophy involves carefully worded logical propositions and constructions that lead to certain conclusions, and so does Law.

Just for fun, I Googled the word “proposition” in the context of philosophy, and here’s the first link.

The term ‘proposition’ has a broad use in contemporary philosophy. It is used to refer to some or all of the following: the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other “propositional attitudes” (i.e., what is believed, doubted, etc.[1]), the referents of that-clauses, and the meanings of sentences.

One might wonder whether a single class of entities can play all these roles. If David Lewis (1986, p. 54) is right in saying that “the conception we associate with the word ‘proposition’ may be something of a jumble of conflicting desiderata,” then it will be impossible to capture our conception in a consistent definition.

The best way to proceed, when dealing with quasi-technical words like ‘proposition’, may be to stipulate a definition and proceed with caution, making sure not to close off any substantive issues by definitional fiat…

The difference of course is where philosophy deals in ideas law deals in money.

That captures pretty well what I was talking about.

I’m not sure how common it is, really. I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers, and with one exception, they were reasonable people. On the other hand, there’s my younger brother, and the things he said about law school made me feel they were trying to train him to be like that. There’s also some indirect stuff from my father, who left law firms several times because he couldn’t stomach what they were doing.

I was really expecting something like tech forums. You ask a hardware question most places where techies hang out, and while you do get a troll now and then, usually you get some good advice, often from highly skilled people. Now I know better!

Seriously, you can’t expect anything from some random forum of people who probably should be putting IANAL after all their posts. As Lincoln said, “a lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade” – the time and advice you get for free, anonymously, is worth what you might expect. As for tech forums, I’ve seen as much mis- and disinformation posted in those as anywhere.

Also, most lawyers are not litigators and do not ever “win” or “lose” as part of their work. What they have in mind, or what they should have in mind, regardless of specialty, is providing the best advice and service possible to their clients. If a lawyer doesn’t know the answer to your question and nevertheless answers authoritatively, obviously they are betraying the principles of their profession.

True, I just thought a forum that explicitly specializes in legal advice wasn’t going to be the same as random forum people, but I was wrong. It was pretty much like asking random forum people. I did get nothing but answers that really should have been “I don’t know.”

Point taken about advice being a lawyer’s prime commodity.

Even if most lawyers don’t see the inside of a courtroom, if you’re doing (say) contract law, you’re still “winning” or “losing” based on how you negotiate. While my father was a criminal defense lawyer most of his life, he spent a few years working for firm that did arbitration near the end of his career, and what irritated him was that most of his colleagues saw it as being about “winning” for their client, rather than finding a long-term solution that worked for both parties.

Yeah, I probably should have qualified that: I live in the Washington DC area, and deal with lots and lots of lawyers. Some are the lobbyist type, some are litigator types, but almost all of them fall into this mold. That said, there are lots of lawyers who don’t fall into this mold – I suspect they just don’t congregate in DC.

As far as your question is concerned, unless these lawyers were in the field of consumer finance relating to motor vehicles, you were in fact asking a room of random clueless people. Lawyers have their own fields of expertise. If I asked a random room of lawyers specific legal questions in my industry, there’s only a fraction of a chance they’d have the right answer unless they were in precisely the same industry.


A contract is what it says it is. And a well-drafted contract states that it represents the full agreement, preventing the parties from later saying they intended to do something different. Otherwise, it’s not really a contract, it’s just an excuse to have a lawsuit later on.

Law school teaches you to focus on winning rather than being helpful.

My experience was that it taught neither. Winning and customer service was something you were supposed to figure out on your own at some future time when those concepts would be helpful to you.

My father felt that was bullshit, and for the brief time he was doing civil law, he tried to focus on reaching an agreement that was good for both parties, rather solely on what was best for his client.

That is technically against what a lawyer promises to do for his clients. At least the way you phrased it.

I’m pretty sure that’s what I was seeing on that forum. Lawyers being lawyers even when fighting and word-parsing was inappropriate.

Hey, fighting and word parsing is what the internet does.

If any of them had known, they could have told me what I eventually found out: that what the buyer’s bank was requesting was legally pointless.

The funny thing is, even though it may be legally pointless, the right advice might just be to give them what they want so the deal can proceed. If the money guys won’t turn the money loose without performing an empty ritual, so be it.

That said, I can understand the frustration. I deal with folks who aren’t lawyers all the time who are involved in personnel litigation. They don’t really know the rules they are supposed to be operating under. They may have attended a seminar a few years back, but not even the lawyer will know every nuance without a lot of experience, research, or both. The clients & witnesses use language that expresses an idea to their satisfaction, but might not deliver all the relevant information. That additional info has to be pulled out by a lawyer who knows what to look for. That can lead to frustration as to why this damn lawyer doesn’t just “get it” and wants to make a big deal about word meanings or minor facts. Follow-up questions are almost ALWAYS required to get the analysis right.

That said, if you weren’t a little cocky, convinced of your own mental agility, and willing to engage in conflict, you wouldn’t have gone to law school in the first place.

Oh no. I did programming and tech support before I went to law school (back in the 386 days) and they don’t share much in the way of methodology. Getting a machine to respond to the right instruction or arrangement of parts is binary – it works or it doesn’t.

Law, on the other hand, is analog. For the cases I handle the most, the variability in outcome is mind-boggling. Without giving too much info away, a case’s outcome can be critcally affected by:

(1) whether you got a lawyer to help you or not, or whether that lawyer was any good or just showing up to get that certain percentage of cases that will naturally go the client’s way anyway (last stats I saw, it was 50% win rate without counsel, 70% win rate with)
(2) what part of the country you live in, some areas are notoriously tight, some loose. We cover 8 states and more on an occasional basis, and there is a great deal of variability.
(3) which particular judge in an office was assigned your case. Win rate precentages for clients can range from the 20’s to the 80’s, depending on the luck of the judge-draw lottery.
(4) where you are living at the time your appeal was filed (people can and do move, especially when they are experiencing hard times), the likelihood you will win on appeal in southeast OK is much, much higher than if you are filing in El Paso, TX. And that state of affairs will continue as long as certain judges keep their jobs.
(5) which lawyer in my office is assigned the case. Some folks never send a case back, some do. Some are so green they don’t even know what to look for.

A tech problem can be solved in a timely or cost-efficient manner or it can’t, and the decision can be made fairly quickly and usually without the involvement of others. In contrast, a litigant will never know where his pachinko ball of a case can end up, there’s just too many outside forces at work.

True. My point being that if you want to violate the spirit of a contract, the usual way to do that is to attack the language, or find some case that the contract misses. Since everyone is aware of that, a well-drafted language must defend against word parsing, usually through exhaustive definitions.

In this particular case, the buyer’s out-of-state bank wanted to alter my vehicle title before the actual sale. Altering a title at closing is one thing, but days before is another, and that seemed unreasonable to me, so I asked if there weren’t a standard method for dealing with this situation - it’s surely something that happens all the time. While I didn’t say “give me a procedure that does not involve altering my title,” you’d have to be a complete idiot not to understand that. What else could I be possibly asking?

Possible responses include “I don’t know,” “that’s what is required in such transactions,” “here’s a method where the bank can protect its interests without altering your title,” and the correct response “altering an out-of-state tile won’t protect the interests of the bank.” What I got instead was a couple of guys harping on the term “standard procedure,” and that it didn’t matter if the bank was following a standard.

I replied that if I knew of a standard method, I could specify an alternate, simpler procedure. Again, the primary focus being a procedure which didn’t alter the title when I hadn’t closed the sale. The response was to harp on the term “simple,” and that the current procedure seemed “simple” to him.

When I said I wanted help, not to argue, and that I wanted an alternate procedure that didn’t involve altering my title, he replied “you said standard, and then you said simple.” At that point he was totally focused on winning an argument that existed only in his head, and felt that by focusing on specific word use rather than intent he would “win.” At no point was he any actual help.

While you certainly find people like that all over the internet, it’s damned weird on a board that exists only for giving advice.

Your deal is with the buyer, not the bank. His deal is with the bank. You simply make the sale dependent on the exchange happening at the same time. It’s up to him to close the deal with the bank, not you. Now, his bank may hold the title in the end until he has paid off his loan, but that’s his problem, that’s his deal with the bank. I’d have dealt with the bank’s demand very quickly - title will be transferred at the same time as the funds being transferred. Until that time the vehicle and title remain in my possession.

Pretty much this. Lawyers specialize.

Also, lawyers are taught to argue from both sides of an argument, so a lawyer representing you may have a different answer from a lawyer representing the credit union. That is why there are so many freakin lawyers.

While I agree, I didn’t want to say “no” just to find out that any lender would have the same requirement.

In any case, I had a thread about that, and as I mentioned, that’s resolved - the bank doesn’t want to alter the title prior to the sale anymore, because it turns out it’s only meaningful to do if it’s an in-state title. My motivation for starting this thread was to express bafflement at the attitude on the legal advice forum.

Well yeah, this was your first wrong assumption. I also happen to know some good lawyers, my wife for one and hey, me as another! We don’t have rot for brains (although 4 years at a party school may have affected me in some way)

If someone posted a tech question, I would help without hesitation. However, I won’t answer legal questions for a number of reasons. Potential liability issues, no client relationship on an anonymous forum and primarily because the nuance of dealing with legal issues is usually not communicated well in this type of environment.

That’s fine. My comments were about someone who did respond, but chose to pick a fight and concentrate on minutiae rather than try to help.

If the party that is paying me and whom I have an ethical duty to represent tells me to seek a long-term solution that works for both parties, that’s what I’ll do.

In the meantime, my actual clients will likely keep telling me to represent only their interests, and get whatever I can for them.

You keep saying this as if you know what the “spirit of the contract” is with some type of omniscience. If it is so obvious what the spirit of the contract is from reading the contract, there will not really be a plausible argument against that interpretation, will there?

The law has generally determined that it is a bit fairer to read what is actually written on the paper rather than to ignore what is on the paper in an attempt to guess what the parties really meant.

Something else you should probably consider - lawyers are not the ones who are ignoring what is clearly “the spirit of the contract” and trying to win by parsing the language in odd ways. The lawyer’s client is doing that. Because the lawyer is not party to the contract. The lawyer can’t decide to bring a claim on his own. Only a party to the contract can do that. And by definition, if the party to the contract is using the lawyer to bring a claim, they apparently do not believe that the “spirit of the contract” is the same thing that you think it is.

Let me rephrase that, to communicate what I’m trying to say better.

Sometimes the obvious “get what I can” approach is not actually in the client’s best interest. I’m saying there are times when you have to consider the larger picture when negotiating.

For example, ruining an agreement that would have been to the client’s benefit, by insisting on terms that the other party cannot agree to. This happens.

You can draft an agreement which looks good in the short term, but which hurts the client’s long term interests. Labor / management agreements have difficulties in this area, where one side insists on terms that will eventually be bad for both of them.

Sometimes giving away a short-term cost can have a long term benefit. A company that, for example, has a reputation for taking good care of its employees will find it much easier to attract and keep skilled workers. A hellhole, in contrast, will likely have horrendous employee turnover.

My point being that often the best possible result requires looking at long term effects and the needs of the other party.

You don’t get the spirit of the contract from reading the contract. That’s a very lawyer-y, inverted way of looking at an agreement. I’m talking about what the parties believed they were agreeing to. The contract is just a formal way of stating that agreement.

There are cases where there is miscommunication, and one party believes they’re agreeing to X, and the other party believes they’re agreeing to Y. Presumably a well-written contract will specify what each party believes they’re agreeing to well enough to avoid that.

However, I’d say that many agreements aren’t that difficult. Both parties have the same understanding of the agreement before they draft a contract. If one party decides that they want to break that agreement, that is when they might try and use specific wording in the contract to void it. They know perfectly well what the intent was, but they’re looking for an out.

Yes, actually, they are the ones doing it. Let’s not pretend here. Sure, it’s the clients who want to break the agreement, but it’s the lawyers doing the actual work.

I’m not deciding what is in the client’s best interest. The client is. The client (at least in my case) is not a child. They decide for themselves how aggressive they want to be.

As far as I am concerned, attorneys are a lot like guns. People want to pretend that attorneys are the problem. They’re not. People using the attorneys are ultimately the problem. It is far too easy to blame poor behavior on attorneys. Attorneys do not have independent agency, they don’t negotiate agreements in a vacuum. People like to be assholes to each other, and then claim it was the attorneys.

Again, if my client does not want those provisions in the agreement, they can tell me that. Since they typically say, “Make sure I’m fully protected,” I’m going to put them in. I’m not going to ignore what my client wants and substitute what I think is best for getting an agreement. My client may well not want an agreement unless they can get that one-sided thing you are complaining about.

If you are omniscient enough to know that what the parties wanted is clearly different than what they wrote down as what they wanted, more power to you. I’m not omniscient, and therefore need to rely on what they actually wrote as what they wanted. Unless my client tells me that what is on the paper is not what they actually wanted.

Well, I’m not pretending, given I’m an attorney that does solely contract drafting and transactional work and therefore know on a very functional and operational level who is responsible for the decision making on these things. I do not decide that I want to break a client’s agreement. The client does. If I say that the agreement says “X” but the client actually knows that they meant “Y,” it is the client making the decision to ignore that, not me.

Frankly, I think you’re engaged in a silly game of scapegoating. I also think you’re casting these theories as being obvious, when they’re nowhere near the reality of how contracts get drafted, how they get interpreted, who controls the process, etc.