A lot has been said about alleged imcompetency of some lawyers in courtrooms and other public settings.
Less has been said, though, about alleged imcompetency of attorneys in their private offices. And that is where 90 percent of a lawyer's work is done.
"The mistakes you make in the office are filed away," said Joel Henning, a continuing legal education specialist who has begun a newsletter about the latest developments in the field of teaching old lawyers new tricks. Or even worse, he might have added, you find out about the mistakes only after you have blown a client's case.
Henning and others are talking about the art of interviewing clients, negotiating deals, drafting documents and other office skills that law schools usually ignore when they churn out the latest crop of eager young attorneys.
The American Bar Association and other groups have decided that the time has come to try to teach those skills in the same way that litigating skills are taught to practicing lawyers whose courtroom skills are rusty or nonexistent.
The ABA, for example, has been experimenting in clinical-style course in office skills in which young -- and sometimes not so young -- lawyers are put into hypothetical settings and told to show how they would operate.
The words used to describe the techniques used by the lawyer-students in those hypothetical situations usually include "shocking," "surprising" and "amazing."
Students admitted to the bar for as many as five years "did not have the foggiest notion to negotiate," said one prominent New York attorney who observed the sessions. The past-chairman of the ABA's general practice section, John J. Thomason of Memphis, said the lawyer-students "lacked skill and did not possess many, if any, techniques for the client interview."
Henning gives one basic example of the problem he is talking about, that of how a lawyer presents himself or herself to a client. Henning says the lawyer is first asked to play the role of client, and appears relaxed and open; then the same lawyer will be asked to play the role of an attorney.
"He (if the lawyer is a male) buttons his coat, his smile fades, he becomes very serious," Henning said. "A young lawyer thinks something must be serious in his or her demeanor."
It is worse when it comes to dealing with documents. In the experimental courses in teaching office skills, lawyers routinely pick contract clauses unfavorable to their clients and then refuse to acknowledge their mistakes when they become evident later, Henning noted.
"An experienced lawyer admits it, while an inexperienced one doesn't, Henning said.
Another continuing legal education specialist, Lynn Glasser of the seminar division of Law and Businesses, Inc., said she is not sure she totally agrees that all low-level associates in large firms need such training since so much of their work is basically research oriented. She said a course given by her program in Washington last week drew upper-level members of large firms to its sessions dealing with "Effective Washington Representation," to learn how to sharpen their skills.
There is one significant drawback to the hopes that office skills courses will be regularly offered to attorneys: The ones who sometimes need it the most are those in small firms or in practice alone, and the odds are that persons in firms of that size will opt to take a continuing legal education course on substantive law -- if they can afford the time or money to take any courses at all.
Since law schools basically ignore the problem and practcing lawyers seldom do anything about it, the lack of office skills might be the next area brought up by lay members of the public concerned with lawyers' performances.