Reason No. 2,341 that I hate being a lawyer: when a friend or family member asks for my take on a legal issue. This inevitably leads to me having to give an answer the asker doesn’t want to hear, thereby resulting in an uncomfortable argument that leaves the asker with the impression that I’m a know-it-all asshole and that all stereotypes about the hatefulness of lawyers are categorically true.
Whenever this happens, the askers set it up as if they want my unbiased advice on an issue about which they’re totally clueless. After the initial entrapment, i.e. after I’ve already stated my opinion and it’s too late to undo the damage, they make it abundantly clear that what they were really seeking was my rubber stamp of approval on an extraordinarily absurd—not to mention procedurally impossible and legally untenable—position that they’ve already adopted in advance of our conversation. In other words, I’m forced to fight the Sisyphean battle of trying to make a convincing argument to a layperson even in the face of clear evidence that he is too stupid to grasp his own stupidity.
Two days ago, my sister’s friend’s husband called me out of the blue under the pretense of “wanting to know what I would do if I were him.” It seems that some combination of inaction on his part following an open container violation resulted in the state of California requiring his presence at a day of forced community service—trash-picking on PCH—with a group of similarly-situated violators. He had been provided with a packet of rules in advance, one of which was (understandably) a strictly-enforced prohibition against removing the state-issued orange vest at any point during the community service.
The rules clearly stated that violations of the orange vest rule would result in a mandatory additional day of community service. Trouble was, he didn’t read the rules before showing up. Of course, he didn’t mention any of that when he got me on the phone and presented his question. Instead, he opened with a lengthy sob story about the extreme heat that day, and the fact that he was trash-picking alongside rapists and hardened criminals (apparently, he didn’t realize that his inclusion of this fact actually served to underscore the necessity of the orange vest rule).
He then explained that he innocently removed his orange vest so he could take off the sweatshirt he was wearing beneath it (no word, however, on why he chose to wear a sweatshirt in the first instance on such a hot day). The supervising officer then approached him and told him he had to put the vest back on immediately, and he responded by saying he would put it back on after he finished shaking some sand out of his shoes. In other words, the officer charitably gave him the chance to cure his vest removal violation, and he pompously ignored it. So the officer told him that he would be required to attend a second day of community service in two weeks.
Before I could ask questions about actually relevant facts, he informed me that he was planning on “getting a judge to set aside the second day of community service.” I ignored that for a moment, since it implied his belief that courtrooms are similar to drive thru windows at Taco Bell, such that he could simply waltz into one at any hour of the day or night and order a binding decision from any judge who happened to be sitting there.
So I asked him what I believed was the only salient question: “Did you know in advance that removing the orange vest was forbidden and would be punished with an extra day of community service?”
“No,” he said. “I didn’t find that out until afterward.”
“How did you find that out?” I asked.
“When I read through the packet of rules that they sent me two weeks before my community service.”
Sisyphus, meet rock. I was literally overwhelmed by the multi-layered abundance of wrongness that he had just presented, but I still wanted to somehow save his dumb ass from the embarrassing futility of acting on his inane plan to find a way to contest his second day of community service. Unfortunately for me, there’s no way to get back the 30 minutes of my life that I wasted trying to reason with him. And he’ll probably end up getting arrested in the next month or two. A person who thinks “I didn’t read the rules you gave me” is a valid defense also probably thinks it’s excusable to blow off the scheduled second day of community service because he is contesting it. Trouble is, the only place he will actually be contesting anything is inside his own head, which unfortunately isn’t a recognized forum under the rules of criminal procedure.
But it wasn’t until later that “it” hit me. It’s true that I can’t ever get those 30 minutes of my life back. But (were he a paying client) I could have at least settled for the second-best thing: compensation for that wasted time. For the first time ever, I truly understood (in fact, I actually experienced) the rationale for the billable hour. The foundation upon which the billable hour was constructed necessarily presupposes that lawyers are primarily compensated for time they waste giving correct advice to laypeople, i.e. their clients, who ultimately get pissed off and ignore them. You can go ahead and call that Reason No. 2,342 that I hate being a lawyer.
Originally posted August 2011