With the possible exception of impossibly attractive doctors and swarthy police officers, no vocation has enjoyed as much TV airtime as lawyers. You’ve got your crafty, avuncular types like Matlock and Sam Watterson. You’ve got your saucy, female varietals like Ally McBeal or Candace Bergen when she was on Boston Legal. You’ve got your lawyers-turned-pseudo-arbitrators like Judge Judy and good old Judge Wapner.
But for my money, the best primetime lawyer to ever grace the tube was the Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz. Hutz, voiced by the late/great Phil Hartman, was the Simpson family’s attorney in umpteen legal debacles, ranging from defending Bart on murder charges to representing Homer against the devil after Homer had sold his soul to the devil for a donut. (In fairness, it was a delicious donut.)
If there was one constant with Lionel Hutz it was that he stank. Bad. He’s probably the worst fictional lawyer of all time, the Goofus to Matlock’s Gallant, a collapsing circus tent of horrendous legal advice, the personification of a walking malpractice claim.
And so, in honor of the Simpsons’ record 24th season (which begins Sunday, by the way), we thought we’d talk about how to find a lawyer that isn’t Lionel Hutz and how we can help you do just that.
Know what the attorney-client privilege means
One of the big reasons the American legal system works is the idea of “attorney-client privilege.” Put simply, this means that anything you say to your lawyer is confidential. Your communications with your lawyer are meant to be open and honest, which allows your counsel to get the information he or she needs to defend you to the best of their ability.
Basically, the more open you are, the better your lawyer will be able to defend you. You don’t need to tell them about the problems with your plumbing or the girl you had a crush in second grade, but if it’s related to your case, spill it. It can’t hurt and a good lawyer will keep it private.
On the other hand, attorney-dumpster confidentiality is not yet precedent. If your lawyer is living in or talking to a trash receptacle, consider finding more professional legal help.
Learn how your lawyer bills clients
The following is probably my favorite Hutz moment ever. The scene is Hutz’s office. Bart comes in with a homeless man (voiced by George Carlin) who claims to have created Itchy & Scratchy, the Simpsons’ hyper-violent parody of Tom & Jerry.
Hutz: All right gentleman. I will take your case. But I will require a thousand dollar retainer.
Bart: A thousand dollars. But your ad says “no money down.”
Hutz: Oh, they got this all screwed up. [corrects ad with felt-marker]
Bart: So you don’t work on a contingency basis?
Hutz: No, money down! Oops, I shouldn’t have the Bar Association logo here either. [Hutz eats ad]
Before hiring a lawyer, you need to know how you’ll pay. And attorneys charge in a variety of ways. For some, it’s an hourly rate. For others, there’s a flat fee. Some demand retainers up front and still others will take some cases pro bono (which is Latin for “you don’t have to pay them. Seriously.”).
But a sizeable percent work on contingency. That means they make a percentage of what their client receives from the judgement or settlement. Obviously, criminal attorneys can’t work this way (there are no cash payouts in an arson case), but a good deal of civil lawyers do. The amount they can charge is typically set forth by the state, and usually maxes out at 33%.
Also, if your lawyer eats his business card, you should think about finding alternate representation.
Good lawyers don’t offer guarantees about your verdict
A lawyer can promise you many things: quality representation, diligence, and expertise among them. What they can’t do is promise you they can win.
If you hear an attorney say that, back away slowly. Your counsel can say “you’ve got a great case” or even “I’ve won similar cases.” They can’t promise victory because they just don’t know.
And if worse comes to worse, at least make sure there’s a pepperoni in that box.
You’re paying for expertise
Just like you want to trust your dentist or your surgeon or your mechanic, you need to be able to trust that your attorney knows their stuff and will litigate your case the best way possible. Find someone who specializes in what you need. Making an estate plan? Get an estate planning attorney. Need help with a workers comp claim? Look into a personal injury attorney. Looking for someone who really knows the ins and outs the court system? Make sure its not because he plowed into the judge’s son in a dented jalopy.
Note that this isn’t about lawyers being young or old or if they work at a giant firm or have hung their own shingle. It’s about knowledge, trust, and skill. Feel free to ask for the recommendations of your friends and family or use a reputable service, like our On Call program, which screens member attorneys, offers discounts, and holds its members to a high standard of excellence.
You know, the opposite of this:
And though the tradition of televised attorneys that began with Perry Mason is still going strong today, with no less than 6,000 primetime legal dramas on each and every night*, no lawyer was ever as gloriously inept as Lionel Hutz. You won’t be seeing him on this Sunday’s episode, since the creators retired the character when Phil Hartman passed away, but you’ll still get the first episode of the 24th season and (depending on who you talk to) last season. Me? I remember watching the Christmas episode with my folks when I was in short pants, so, even though the quality’s slipped in the past decade, I’ll be sad when America’s favorite dysfunctional family finally trades in the couch gag for a well-earned retirement.
Let’s end with a quote, shall we?
Judge: Mr. Hutz w’ve been in here for four hours. Do you have any evidence at all?
Hutz: Well, Your Honor. We’ve plenty of hearsay and conjecture. Those are kinds of evidence.
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