It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion

At the New York Times, Tim Kreider complains of how the word “content” went from satisfied to freebie.

NOT long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

I wonder how much the Times paid him to write that?  Even a trench lawyer with a blog gets a ton of requests for free “content” daily, which is better than some of the total nutjob blogs that just grab posts as if we’re on their team. To even start describing some of the insanity the internet has brought to my front door is impossible; there are people whose craziness is far beyond a normal person’s wildest imagination, and there is an audience for pretty much anything out there, no matter how disgusting or nuts.  But I digress.

Free is the new black. It’s true that blogs undermined the value of writing, not because we’re an adequate substitute, but because we’re free.  People will suffer a lot of mediocrity to get it for free. The old adage, you get what you pay for, was meant as a slam.  It’s now merely a reminder that you shouldn’t gripe too much since it didn’t cost you.  It’s a fair trade-off.

Having a big internet to choose from is a huge opportunity for lawyers. I know this because my pals, Carolyn Elefant, Kevin O’Keefe, Niki Black, Mark Britton and many others tell me so. Except I keep getting phone calls and emails from people who want a lawyer for free.  Tons of them. And even if I won’t take their case for free, will I at least answer their questions for free? Or give them a free consultation?

Another pal, Mark Bennett, spent the past week engaged in a kerfuffle with some baby lawyer.  She was giving free advice on a problem far away from her jurisdiction for the purpose of self-promotion, except the advice she gave was dead wrong.  She was very miffed with Bennett for not correcting her in a kindly manner, screwing up her effort at creating a carefully crafted internet persona that somehow neglected to mention she was incompetent.

But her advice was free. And it was all for a good cause, her self-aggrandizement. Lawyers shouldn’t do that to other lawyers, Bennett was told. It’s unprofessional to smack an incompetent lawyer. It’s not unprofessional to be an incompetent lawyer, however.  Incompetent legal advice is the price of a free internet.

I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing. I have to admit my empathetic imagination is failing me here. I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.

The reinvent the future of the new normal of law folks have been arguing to everyone in their echo chamber that tech changes everything. If they’re right, then we’re doomed.  People who get arrested are entitled to legal counsel, but only if they can’t afford to hire one.  That’s not how most feel, however. They feel entitled regardless. Everything they read on the internet tells them that lawyers give it away for free. A Twizzler costs money. Legal advice is there for the taking.

Kreider writes about how technology is the delivery mechanism of content, but content still has to come from somewhere. If you want content, someone has to create it. There are plenty of people willing to do so for free because they haven’t figured out that the “exposure” they’re promised is a meaningless come-on. Them and a zillion others just like them get exposure, all twelve people who stumble onto your crap website. Only a handful capture any audience of worth, and even then, they only manage to get exposed as someone who gives it up for free.

Beyond the phone calls for free legal advice, often ending with the caller angry that I won’t give them what Avvo promises I should, there are the lawyers who have just started their blog and want me to “take a look” and, perhaps, throw them a link. They are garbage, the sort of content that marketeers tell them to post using their top ten rules of successful blogging.

Lawyers are going the way of writers, devaluing what we do in order to gain the promise of exposure, failing to think hard enough to understand that we’ve told the world that we give it away for free.  So what if you’ve conclusively proven you’re incompetent in the process; it’s free and they’ll suffer incompetence for the right price.

Eventually, lawyers will come to the realization that the technology that thrilled them with promise has worked to the benefit of Google and Apple, but has left them empty and worthless.  And when someone Googles a lawyer for advice and stumbles upon an incompetent fool, they won’t be upset. After all, at least it was free.  Well played, technology.  Well played.

17 comments on “It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion

  1. AP

    There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t read an article bemoaning the fact that lawyers are too expensive and people can’t afford them anymore. From my own personal experience I’ve come to believe that many people who call me and say they can’t afford me do so only because they’re surprised that I don’t offer my services for free. You see if you wake up and start calling lawyers expecting to be represented for free or on a contingency basis (which I’m unclear on how that would work as a criminal lawyer) and the lawyer quotes you a fee — any fee — you’ll likely complain that the fees are too high or you simply can’t afford them. Of course many of us lawyers do ourselves a disservice when we plaster “free consultation” all over our web site and yellow page ads. The evil twin of “free” in my opinion is the dreaded I’ll cut my fees by 40% because you balked at my initial fee.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “free consultation” model is fine for personal injury, but it created an expectation and most lawyers fell prey to it. One of the dilemmas is that legal fees are “dead money.” You don’t get anything tangible for it, no shiny iToy, or even a pleasant experience. It’s not an investment and provides no positive return. At the very best, you end up back where you started (unconvicted, for example), but with that much less money.

      People often say they can’t afford a lawyer when they can well afford one, but are unwilling to suffer the cost. If “affording a lawyer” means you have extra money in the bank doing nothing, then that’s one definition. If it means a reallocation of scarce resources, that’s a very different definition. I’ve been told by advocates that no one should have to mortgage his house, sell his car, cash in his IRA, to pay for a lawyer. Why not? Because no one should have to give anything up or suffer any loss of net worth to have legal counsel.

      Of course, if that’s so, then the legal profession must either disappear or become an entitlement paid for by the government, though it’s hard to imagine that smart people would want to become a lawyer if that’s the case. So pick your poison, because you can’t have it all ways.

      1. AP

        Because up here in Canada our health care is a government entitlement people essentially show their health card and received medical care. For the most part they never have to reach into their pocket or dip into their savings. My theory is that because that is their only tangible reference point when they need to procure professional services, they see lawyers in the same way especially in the criminal context. People know about government run Legal Aid and assume that, like health care insurance, everyone qualifies and the government will pay for it. Of course things become clearer to them when I tell them that the same government that wants to send them away to prison is not so eager to foot their legal bill.

        1. SHG Post author

          The irony is that many people who have PDs or get indigent counsel aren’t thrilled with it. Not necessarily because the lawyers aren’t good, but because they can’t give them the degree of personal attention and service they demand. And of course, if a lawyer carries a ridiculously high caseload, he can’t.

          1. nidefatt

            In my experience, it isn’t so much that they aren’t thrilled, it’s just that we aren’t lawyers. This past week, my coworker had a client with two cases. That client went to a private attorney who said she couldn’t afford him on both, so he would take the one where my coworker had arranged for a dismissal. Client agreed.

            As a county commissioner once put it, a monkey could do our job. Many people facing prison aren’t comfortable with a pretender sitting next to them. And no matter what we do, that’s what we are. Because if we were any good, wouldn’t we want to be paid?

            1. nidefatt

              Not at all, I’m just saying in comparison to the number of people who are concerned about my time and attention, the number who dismiss me as inconsequential is much higher.

              Though I do find it entertaining when the client says, well, you seem really intelligent, so I just want to ask you, based on what you see in my case, should I hire a lawyer?

            2. SHG Post author

              You’re not getting this. The public pretender perception has been happening since before I started practicing. It grew out of the belief that PDs didn’t do what “real” lawyers did (time and attention), and you’re now seeing it 50 years down the road where it’s become a question of whether you’re a lawyer at all. Remember, not all clients are rocket scientists.

          2. Marilou Auer

            I’m reminded of the criminal defendant from Houston a year or so ago who paid his retained counsel $25,000 up front and STILL didn’t get the attention he felt he deserved. It isn’t just overcommitted and overworked public defenders.

            1. SHG Post author

              There are always instances of private lawyers who suck. It has nothing to do with the institutionalized pressures and unmanageable volume of public defenders, and conflating the two makes no sense at all.

      2. Ultraviolet admin

        Dead money is the rub. I hear horror stories from people dealing with family law because nobody wants to pay their lawyers in that field. Mostly because people feel they’re already defending their money from their spouse, and now they gotta defend it from their attorney. The funny thing is in a lot of fields people can reduce their cost by hiring an attorney beforehand and doing planning (you especially see this in business ). Or getting one in early before they say something or do something silly.

        The blogger content issue reminds also of friends who did graphic design. 9/10 customers only want free work ‘you can do for your portfolio’. Enough folks want in and believe getting their content out there that finding a paid graphic design job is a nightmare. Friend of mine went back to school to become a CPA despite being first in her class. Funny enough, nobody asks for free tax help.

        In the end, you get what you pay for.

  2. nidefatt

    I sympathize with folks. While I understand the private attorney’s perspective, I also see this from the perspective of the accused. People don’t expect to be accused of crime, even while they’re committing crimes. And when they are accused, it’s a schizoid system that says you’re innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but if someone has accused you of a crime, you will be expected to spend a few grand to defend yourself. Worse if a judge has agreed there’s probable cause to believe it- now you also get to spend some money bailing yourself out of jail.

    So while it is I’m sure obnoxious that they want advice for free, I think it somewhat appropriate for them to feel like they shouldn’t have to pay to be found innocent. But that’s because folks fail to recognize that criminal charges are essentially just another disaster, falling somewhere between lost socks and being bombed (infraction to felony murder).

    It’s one thing to have insurance for a tornado, no one thinks to get insurance for being accused of being a child molester. I’ve heard of insurance for criminal charges. Never actually seen any ads for it. Imagine an Obamacare for criminal charges- instead of PDs, a system where you pay in to a plan that provides a certain amount of money toward your defense. It would drive the criminal justice system into the spotlight, expose the quintessential incest involved in having lawyers pick people to pull apart between them, some money in fees for you, other money in fines for me.

    But for all that, it remains the best justice system known to man. Absurdly enough.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re young and romantic. We all sympathize, but that doesn’t change the fact that we work for a living, have kids who need braces and college and weddings. And if there was no future for PDs, you would have three people willing to do the job and the rest would be transactional lawyers. There would be no justice system, whether you think it’s best (based on you lengthy experience) or not.

      1. nidefatt

        Rereading your post, I think it’s worse than just my being young and romantic. I think what you’re saying is that bad things happen, and you deal with it, and like everything else it costs money. I grew up with the internet and napster, etc. It is very likely that my perspective, that things shouldn’t necessarily cost money, is born partly because of the internet providing so much for so little. I think you’re also saying that if things are going to change in this regard, it won’t be for the better. Which does seem true, based on my limited knowledge and experience. So, I change my response to your post to “yikes.”

        1. SHG Post author

          Yes, yes, yes. And my dear napster child, if the entitlement continues, you are going to have one very miserable life as a lawyer wondering what to do about your very hungry and shoeless children when they toss your aged-out butt from the PD’s office to make room for younger (and less expensive) lawyers and tell you to have a nice day.

          To be less snarky about the whole thing, it’s an unsustainable system unless lawyers get paid, just like free milk means no milk because who would want to be a dairy farmer, and even if he wanted to, he would go broke? We can be as sympathetic as we want, but no service or product can survive if no one is willing to pay for it. And the internet says they can have lawyers for free, so what idiot would want to pay?

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