Monday, 30 January 2012

I don't want him to see the children, ever again!

What do you do if your client comes in and tells you that they never want the father of their children to see them, ever again?

For starters, laugh long and hard at them.  Then bring them down to earth with as much thump as you think they can bear, because if they keep on with that attitude... it is going to be a looong matter.

I think it comes back to managing your client's expectations.  You can give them all the long speeches about the law and the children's right to be known and loved by both parents, but unless you make them understand that they are not going to get what they want, you are going to struggle with them.  And then, when they finally get orders for shared parental responsibility, equal time, and her paying him child support, they are almost certainly going to complain.

I had finalised my first matter last week, and it involved a 2 year battle to convince our client that the father was going to spend time with the children.  She JUMPED at supervised time, but was amazingly hesitant to allow him to see the children alone.

The solicitor who was (then) managing the matter kept repeating and repeating that the father was going to spend unsupervised time with the child in the end, no matter what.  He had ticked all the boxes and jumped through all the hoops.  Our client just wouldn't see it.  She raised more and more objections, getting more and more hysteric, until finally, after about 18 months, the Magistrate allowed the father unsupervised time on a gradually increasing basis.

Well, this was a catalyst.  All of a sudden our client deflated, and capitulated, agreeing to a reasonable set of consent Orders for shared parenting.

I wonder if there was any better way to convince her of this 6 months ago?  Was there any way we could have driven it in to her any harder?  It would have saved her money, and lots of trips to town as well.

As a post-script, the devil is in the details.  After the in-principle agreement, it took another 6 weeks to agree on the exact terms of the Orders, involving challenges with handovers, child support, and all sorts of other foibles that just seemed irrelevant back when the biggest matter was whether the father would see the child alone.  The final agreement wasn't reached until 7pm the night before the final hearing before trial.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Office Cleaners: Devils or Saints?

I spent about four years working at a pub while I was at uni.  I have several habits very deeply ingrained, one of them being to clean every surface immediately.  (I never notice dirty floors - the cleaners did that!)  We also had a list of jobs that had to be done every week, like cleaning under the fridges, the front of the bar, the windows, and the floor behind the bread rack.  We were fired on the spot if we missed a spot.  (Not quite.)
So one thing I notice is if someone has just mopped around things on the floor.

Yesterday, I was working in my office, and the cleaner was in the courtyard behind me.  She was making an amazing ruckus, banging buckets and humming to herself.  Despicable!  I determined to go and yell at her for making so much noise in an office building.   How dare she interrupt us godly solicitors! I earn... well, at least a few dollars an week more than she does.  Who does she think she is?

I then noticed that it was well after 7pm, office hours were over, and I had, once again, missed dinner.  I slunk home, and as I was leaving, gave the cleaner a cheery nod.

Did I ever mention how good a job they do?  And for such terrible money!


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Having a secretary

I passed a major mile-stone today.  Less than two weeks on the job, and I just asked my secretary to type a letter for me.  It's not that I can't type it, it's certainly not that I don't have time to type it, it is just that she has written these letters before, and can do it quickly.

The senior solicitors in my firm dictate almost all of their letters for the support staff to type.  The secretary in my office is constantly bogged down by dictations from our other office.  But the fact is, I just don't seem to need a secretary to type my letters!

I grew up with computers.  I learned to type when I was six, and learned to touch-type while I was in uni.  I can type at speaking-pace, if the lecturer isn't rushing.  (I had one lecturer who..... spoke so...... slowly.... that I could type every word he said, and still hold a note-pad conversation with my neighbour...)  So to my, typing my own letters takes the same amount of time as dictating them.  Then, considering that the secretaries already have plenty of work... it isn't really a time saving device, even if I AM a bit slower.

Compare that to the senior lawyers, who might have learned to type on a type-writer (chikka chak) or not at all.  Watching them type is almost painful, seeing them hunting for the 'k' key with one finger poised, ready to hen-peck.  I recently showed one of my colleagues how to use his thumb on the space-bar.  For people like this, it is a GREAT time-saver, and since their time is worth so much more (in a strict monetary sense..) than the secretaries, it makes a lot of sense.

Added to that, when typing a complex letter, I often go back and revise sentences, paragraphs, and often re-write the entire thing.   I just can't do that on a dictaphone. 

I wonder what my opinion will be in six months, when I am capable of thinking through the contents of an entire letter in one go.  Will I get sucked into the efficacy and convenience of having a secretary?  We may never know!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The problem with Legal Aid

In South Australia, if you cannot afford a lawyer, you can apply to the Legal Services Commission for a grant of Legal Aid.  They will only grant Aid if you qualify under a set of fairly strict conditions relating to property ownership, income, and other circumstances.  Typically, they will only grant Aid in criminal matters where there is a risk of imprisonment, family matters where there are insufficient assets to pay for private legal representation (or one party has no access to those assets) or in a very limited set of civil matters.

Criminal Law and Legal Aid:
Strictly speaking, it is possible to run a legal practice acting only for clients who are funded by Legal Aid.   It isn't easy though.  In criminal law, although they have recently increased the funding, if a solicitor appears for a guilty plea, they are paid less than $500.00.  Let me put that in perspective.

You are paid half of that for the appearance (counsel fee) and half for the work you do before the appearance (solicitor fee.)  This means that to take instructions from the client, prepare affidavits, and travel to Court, you are only paid about $250.00  That is less than an hour at a solicitors' normal rates.

Taking instructions from a client is a fairly complicated process.  Firstly, the solicitor has to contact the prosecutor and ask for the allegations, and any supporting statements.  This can take several weeks to arrive, which often means that the first court date has passed, and you have already appeared for the client seeking an adjournment for prosecution to provide documents. 

Once you have all the allegations, you have to take detailed instructions from your client.  I have sat in on many interviews where the time spent with the client well exceeds an hour.  The solicitor has to get instructions relating to the offence, and has to compare the client's story with the prosecution's allegations.  Then, a solicitor should take instructions relating to the client's history, offending history, family, education, and anything else that will be relevant to a sentencing magistrate.

Once that is done, the firm prepares a statement from the client summarising all the instructions they have given, so that the solicitor has something to refer to when making sentencing submissions.  Often, the client's instructions will reveal that further documents need to be prepared by prosecution, so you have to wait another week or two.

Once all that has been done, (assuming you don't need to seek a psychological report, or other expert witness) you have more than chewed through your $250 grant.  After that, you make your appearance at a magistrates court, and the client is sentenced on the basis of your submissions and their guilty plea.  You then need to write a letter of report to the client (since they often don't understand what is going on at court) which takes another half-hour... if you are quick.

As a new lawyer, I am NOT quick.

Family Law and Legal Aid:
Family Law is a bigger problem.  Although the grant is significantly larger, the amount of work that needs to go into the matter is also significantly larger.

Assuming that you are acting for a client in a children's matter, you need to take instructions relating to the breakdown of the relationship, the child's health and education, the possible housing, and often, the history of domestic violence.  Then, if the matter can't be resolved in a Family Dispute Resolution Conference, the matter needs to go to trial.  I am not certain of the exact amount that is provided by the Legal Services Commission, but if the matter is protracted (one file I am working on has been going since February 2010...) you work through your grant in a very short time.

Think about a $2000 grant of Legal Aid.  At CHEAP commercial rates, a lawyer might charge $300/hour.  That is less than seven hours of their work over two years on this file alone.  I guarantee that you cannot run a two-year dispute with less than seven hours of time.

Occasionally, you can make some money with Legal Aid.  If you are able to resolve a matter quickly and easily, you can be paid quickly and decently.  This means that there can be significant pressure on clients to resolve their issues out of court, which CAN mean that they are pressured into accepting situations which are not in their best interests.

On the other hand, paying privately is not in their best interests either.  Complex property settlements can take just as long, and cost well in excess of $50,000.

"Law now entry-level degree for careers"

In the latest 'In-daily' newsletter, there was an article by Melissa Mack titled 'Law now entry-level degree for careers.'  It starts by noting that 'ONLY about half the Law graduates go on to become lawyers as increasingly the law degree is perceived as a course that "teaches students to think".'

No.  Absolutely not.  I disagree in the strongest possible terms!  Law is not a degree that teaches people to think.  It is a degree that teaches people to understand the law, but has almost no relevance to the world other than the in the strictest jurisprudential way.

Teaching students to think:
How exactly DOES one teach students to think?  What does it mean to teach someone to think?  How do you know when a student has learned to think?  ('Excuse me, but are you capable of conscious thought?'  'Uggrl burgle blah.'  'Did your law degree help achieve that?'  'pthootn mlarm.')

I am a huge fan of the old British system of tertiary education.  If you wanted to study a profession (IE Law, Medicine, etc.) you had to have completed an undergraduate degree first.  This meant that people who went on to study the professions had a solid base of knowledge, and more importantly, the skills to gather MORE knowledge before embarking on a further course of specialised study.

The most common undergraduate degrees were Arts and Science.  Leaving Science aside for now (bloody nerrrds...) let's talk about what an Arts degree entails.

What is Arts?
First of all, the common misconception is that people study Arts to learn how to be Artists.  No.  If one wants to be an artist, you study ART.  The study of the discipline called 'arts' is the study of a broad range of arts, including almost anything that could be called an 'art.'  The 'art' of communication, for example, is only peripherally connected to a paint brush or a sculpture.  (Please no flaming comments about how 'art' is expression... this is just an example.)

A typical 'arts' degree is a fairly unstructured, broad ranging degree.  A student can choose to specialise (Bachelor of Arts majoring in Music, History or German, for example) or can choose to complete their degree without a major.  In any event, the student is forced to appreciate a wide range of topics relating to the world.

I completed a Bachelor of International Studies, which is basically a glorified Arts degree with an in-built focus on politics.  I could also have completed an Arts degree, with a focus on International Studies, to much the same effect.  (Indeed, I could have taken all the same classes.)  During my studies, I took a fascinating course called "Morality, Society and the Individual."  This course was a basic introduction to the discipline of philosophy, and introduced us to such riveting problems as the prisoner's dilemma.  (See Wikipedia article here) If you haven't heard of it, that is your first piece of homework.  (Far more interesting than any of my rambling here...)

Asides from that, I took courses in Chinese (one semester, then I dropped out), history, politics, linguistics, and even ancient history.  I studied information theory, media theories, and the politics of leadership.  Perhaps my favorite course was a general history of the West since world-war II.  As a result, I can hold an informed conversation about any of those topics.  Plus, when I read a phrase such as 'neo-realist approach' I know that the author is a pompous over-educated moron.  (I have sources...)

I may not be an expert in any of those areas, but I am certainly more knowledgable about the way people react to different situations.  I have a broad understanding of history, and I can analyse cause/effect scenarios with reference to past events.

Does Law teach us to think?
So, this gets us to the original premise of this post... does the study of Law teach students to think?   We are taught to read legislation and interpret that with reference to case law.  In other words, we are taught to read things written in a techno-jargon called 'legalese' by people who specialise in writing complex legalese documents.  We are then expected to tell other people what that means in real English, or at least tell them why they are going to jail, and how much they have to pay us.

We are taught to read vast tracts of case law by such esteemed (and rambling) Judges as His Honour Justice Michael Kirby.  We then have to regurgitate all of this information in three-hour marathons called exams where we are expected to apply our wonderful knowledge to specific scenarios.

We ARE expected to know how to think, but only in a very limited fashion.  I know people who are so much more intelligent than me, but when faced with a real-life problem are simply not able to react.  They can tell me to the nth degree what the law is and where I stand, but they can't tell me how to deal with a family issue that has ended in a protracted 2-year legal battle. 

So employers, think about this.  Do you want someone working in your government office who can read a piece of legislation and tell constituents to fill in form P629-a/43, or do you want someone who knows that World War II stimulated the world economy out of a depression?

Or, to put it another way, do you want polititians who know exactly how to rort the system, or do you want a defense minister who understands the arms-race that led to World War I?  Just sayin'...


The origins of a Miscellaneous Lawyer

Five years of uni, one year of post-grad, and six months of office work, and finally, I am... a Lawyer.  (Duh duh duhhhhh)

Two weeks into my first real job as a lawyer, and every night I go home and think that all this would make a great story.  Since I am not that great a writer, I thought Blog!  What a great way to tell funny stories, amusing anecdotes, and perhaps share a bit of what it is like making my way in the Big Bad World of Law and (dis)-Order.

I will tell you this much about myself.  I finished my Law degree at Adelaide University in 2010.  I completed the final requirements for my admission in about October 2011, and was admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor in the Supreme Court of South Australia in November 2011.  I am currently working as a Solicitor in a country law firm in South Australia.  I play way too many instruments, and I make a fantastic hamburger. 

For reasons of confidentiality, I won't post any more about who I am, who I work for, or which Court I am appearing in.  It shouldn't be too hard to work out if you are really interested (and somewhat stalker-ish) but seriously, if you are really interested, just ask me. 

The origin of this blog.
While I was travelling overseas, my then girlfriend (now fiancee) sent me a book called 'Annonymous Lawyer' by Jeremy Blachman.  It was supposed to be a birthday present, but I opened it and devoured it in about a day.  It was some of the funniest writing I have read in a long time. 

The premise was that a senior lawyer at a large, prestigious law firm decided to set up his own blog called 'annonymous lawyer' and started making satiric comments about all his staff and colleagues.  It also chronicled his ambitious attempt to wrest power from the senior partner, all the while his many avid readers slowly worked out who he was.  I won't post the ending (seriously, just go read it, it is fantastic), but the idea kinda stuck in my mind.

I can promise that I won't be making any ambitious grabs at power in my law firm.  The senior solicitors are all experienced, highly competent lawyers, and as a first-year solicitor... well, let's just say that I refer to myself as 'the baby-lawyer.'  Not far off the truth, either.

My second client ever said straight out to me, 'Um, I don't mean to be rude, but are you, uh, fully qualified and all that?'  She later apologised and said that I have a 'baby face.'  Hmm.  Not sure what to make of that.  Never mind.  I gave her some dodgy legal advice and let her go.  (Not really.)  I think I will start hanging my degrees up in my room, just to be able to point to them and say, 'See that?  Five years.  See that one?  One year, and $5000.  See that one?  Just don't ask.'

Where to from here:
I certainly am not expecting this blog to be published in book form, with me sitting in book stores handing out signed copies.  I don't really expect to see more than a few readers stumbling on and leaving snarky comments.  ("You told her she could get HOW much?  Such a n00bzor!")  What I do expect is that every time something amusing or interesting happens, I might just make a post about it.  Who knows, I could be the next annonymous lawyer!  Orrrrrr, I could get bored in a few weeks, and no one will ever read this.  Let's just wait and see.