Woe be unto dabblers

The past few weeks I’ve taken over a few cases from dabblers, provided second opinions to a few family court litigants represented by dabblers, litigated a few family court cases against dabblers, defended a visitation modification case against a non-dabbler, and have dabbled myself in an appeal in an area outside my usual practice.  These experiences have underscored the importance of attorneys developing a few areas of legal “expertise” and of clients hiring an attorney who doesn’t merely dabble in that practice area.

The cases I’ve taken over from dabblers led to extremely happy clients–a not uncommon experience–simply because their previous attorneys could not articulate or implement a legal strategy that was capable of achieving the clients’ goals.  The cases I’ve litigated against dabblers have resulted in a couple of very favorable settlements.  The trial I defended against a non-dabbler was my hardest fought matter of the past couple of months, in which what was basically a tie feels like an enormous victory.  And the appeal I decided to dabble in has been frustrating because I am not only struggling with the “known unknowns” (issues I spot but am unsure how to answer) but the “unknown unknowns” (issues I don’t even spot and am therefore terrified of missing).

Having numerous “unknown unknowns” are the mark of new attorneys and dabblers and it’s the issues that attorneys fail to spot that often lead to the worst results.   Most folks think that what makes an attorney experienced is developing an encyclopedia of “correct” answers.  However, much of what makes an attorney knowledgeable or experienced isn’t merely knowing the correct answer–much of the time there isn’t a correct answer.   Rather it is knowing what issues might arise, even if one cannot answer how that issue might be resolved, that best distinguishes an experienced attorney from a dabbler.

I feel sorry for attorneys from rural areas who are almost compelled to practice in multiple, unrelated, fields of law.  The same goes for many older attorneys–typically those in their 60’s and up–who started practicing in an era where the law was less complicated and the expectation was that legal skills such as research, case analysis and preparation, and trial experience were sufficient to carry-over from one substantive area of law into another.  It’s great living in a medium-sized city such as Charleston, which allows me to develop a law practice where I do not have to dabble.  It was my own sense of being overmatched in areas outside of family law and appeals that has led me to gradually but substantially reduce my practices in civil litigation and criminal law.  When I encounter these older or rural attorneys in family court they are almost always similarly overmatched.  Family court is no place for dabblers.

When I started my family law practice almost twenty years ago family law was already extremely complex, with unique substantive, procedural and evidentiary rules and a culture quite distinct from other areas of law.  That complexity has only increased, even accelerated, since then.  Attorneys who emphasize family law as their primary practice area–the rules of professional conduct do not allow attorneys to label themselves as specializing in most fields, including family law–routinely achieve better results for their clients.

I further sympathize for opposing parties represented by dabblers because their counsel routinely fail to spot issues that allow me to structure highly advantageous settlements that no family law “specialist” would allow their clients to enter.   In court such dabblers place their clients at extreme disadvantage because they have little feel for the procedural or substantive issues that are going to be important to a family court judge.  Some of my most overwhelming victories in family court have come against very experienced opposing attorneys who simply did little family court work.  I suspect that opposing attorneys in civil and criminal cases were taking similar advantage of my relative unfamiliarity with the substantive and procedural law and the particular legal culture.

How could it be otherwise?  As I’ve slowly diminished my civil and criminal practice, I’ve stopped researching, learning and cogitating upon issues that are a routine part of such practices, such as how one prepares for and conducts a great voir dire or closing argument, how one explains legal concepts to folks who have no legal training, or ways one might help a jury connect with a client who’s a little bit “off.”  Instead, I’ve spent much of the past twenty years cogitating on how to structure visitation schedules for folks with odd work hours, how to rehabilitate a parent who’s exercised bad judgment, or how to structure a settlement agreement that minimizes the opportunities for unfavorable modifications while maximizing the opportunities for favorable modifications.   While this knowledge and experience makes me vastly more efficient when handling family law disputes, I lose this efficiency when handling matters outside of my “expertise.”

Worst of all are the dabblers who have no passion for family law.  While some attorneys look down on family law, every attorney I know who emphasizes family law has a real passion for it.  Practitioners of family law who identify as family court lawyers see themselves as providing a vital service to people in distress over issues related to children or marriage.  Given the importance of children and marriage to most humans, helping people resolve these problems can be very satisfying for both the attorney and the client.  One of the most important questions someone in need of a family law attorney should ask prospective counsel is why that attorney chose to practice family law.  Clients should avoid retaining attorneys who lack a passion for an area in which they practice.

Even worse are the law firms that emphasize other areas of law yet remain unwilling to refer-out folks who approach them with family law issues.  These firms then typically have their lowest-level associates handle such matters.  Since family law isn’t what these firms emphasize, these associates tend to view such work as a distraction: one rarely makes partner at a civil litigation or workers compensation firm by becoming proficient at family law.  I’ve yet to understand why such firms simply don’t refer out such work to family law attorneys with the expectation that these family law attorneys will refer back work in the firms’ practice areas.  Most family law attorneys have such symbiotic relationships with at least a few tax, probate and criminal attorneys.  Further, by having their least experienced attorneys handle domestic matters–often attorneys who express an active dislike of family law practice–these firms demonstrate a disrespect for an area of law I and my family law colleagues have chosen to devote our legal careers to.  Frankly it’s insulting.  I take a special, schadenfreude-like, pleasure when achieving great results against such law firms.

Nobody expects a great cardiologist to also practice brain surgery: medicine is simply too complex and the years of study and practice necessary to become exceptional in one area of medicine precludes doctors from even becoming proficient in myriad areas of medicine.  Yet the expectation still persists that a great lawyer can practice many areas of law.  It’s a faulty expectation.

Woe to the lawyer who remains a dabbler a decade into practice.  And woe to the client with a complicated family law matter who retains a dabbler.

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