In defence of lawyers and their fees

The Oscar Pistorius case discussion has shifted, to a degree, to the lawyers involved and the profit they are bound to make from this high profile case. This is a common meme in any high profile case and when talking about lawyers generally. It is also a pretty harmful meme and not necessarily for the reason you may expect.

This sort of case requires some pretty substantial legal resources and quality legal resources don’t come cheaply. The lawyers are almost certainly going to make a lot of money on this case but the work that goes into high pressure litigation is tremendous (I don’t really know what goes into a criminal case, I don’t do that sort of work) and the work is almost all consuming.

I understand criticisms of lawyers who stand to profit from these sorts of cases (and legal work, generally) and there are certainly plenty lawyers who do shoddy work and charge absurd fees for little value in return but there are many lawyers who are smart, work really hard and are worth every Rand they charge and then some.

The law is complex and it becomes more and more complex each year due to new legislation (lately, increasingly poorly drafted legislation), new developments and trends and changing norms which require a lot of skill, experience and focus. We live in a society that is structured using a dizzying array of laws and regulations. Those laws may be unfair, unjust or even applied poorly but law informs the underlying structure of virtually everything you do. You are probably not aware of most of it but it is there nonetheless.

The problem with this notion that because lawyers charge a lot of money, they are evil manipulators who profit from human weakness and suffering is that, while true in some instances, it undermines the good work a great many lawyers do on a daily basis and that can often lead to lower quality work from well-meaning but increasingly pressurised lawyers. Constant criticism of legal fees frequently ignores the value in the work lawyers do. When you lose sight of the value in legal services, the focus shifts to cost and the pressure is always on reducing the cost as much as possible.

Reducing the cost can, in turn, pressure lawyers to compromise their work quality and that rarely goes well. Resisting the temptation to compromise on work quality despite the reduction of a fee for that work can be costly. It usually means spending more time on the work than the fee justifies (remember, much of the work lawyers do is time intensive and we still have bills to pay at the end of a month like you do) and that means billing less and less for work clients expect to be high quality.

Many lawyers do what they can to get by or even thrive by adjusting the quality of the work they do and the services they render to suit the fees they earn. To an extent, you can mitigate this by working smarter and more efficiently but that only takes you so far. Sometimes you just have to spend a couple hours properly analysing a document if you are going to be able to give good advice on it.

The end result can often be that clients receive less that satisfactory work (from both their and the lawyers’ perspective) for fees they still feel are high and don’t see the value they receive in exchange for those fees. This just perpetuates this perception of lawyers as leeches, sharks, vampires … you name it.

Thankfully there are great lawyers who either accept the additional stress of doing high quality work for low fees (and work ridiculous hours, sacrificing time with families, friends and even time to themselves to unwind) or who charge higher fees in return for having the mental and financial space to do great work. Both types of lawyers deserve tremendous respect because what they share is not wealth (not all lawyers are well off, more lawyers struggle with high debt and just get by than you may think) but integrity.

I don’t know Oscar Pistorius’ legal team but criticising them just because they will likely charge substantial fees to defend their client against murder charges and what those could mean for him disrespects the work they do and the work virtually all lawyers do. It also perpetuates the negative perceptions of lawyers and the cycle of more lawyers making poor decisions just to survive.