Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? opens with a discussion of how everyone thought she was crazy for writing it. It talks about how other lawyers threatened lawsuits for Ms. Porter giving away the time-honored secrets of avoiding paying your lawyer. It discusses how everyone but her own mother thought she was a lunatic. However, Ms. Porter seems to have forgotten one simple rule: Lawyers, by and large, are a vengeful group of petty pricks. Pricks with a very particular set of skills. Oh yes, Ms. Porter of Ducklingburg, South Duck, USA, you're no longer safe. I will look for you, I will find you, and I will bill you.
Porter, accurately and in excruciating detail (and not a little much-appreciated snark), divides her book into two general sections: one for the shitbirds that want to know how to skip out on a bill, and the second clearly for the attorneys in us who have that necessary touch of schadenfreude when it comes to the troubles experienced by other attorneys, and frankly she does both magnificently.
The first section details all of the reasons why a lawyer will not pursue a bill...all of which tend to boil down to "because a shitbird will file a Bar complaint." It details how a prospective client should act in the initial consultation to secure legal services free of charge. It is, for all intents and purposes, an accurate primer on how to screw over the poor attorney that is unfortunate enough to take on your case, and it is wonderfully written in an engaging manner.
I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that this first section isn't geared towards clients at all, but rather is geared towards the hapless young attorney desperately seeking his or her first kill in the legal arena. Reading between the lines, it's clear that Ms. Porter is really and truly giving the new lawyer, be they a freshly minted Bar passer or a former in-house or corporate lawyer with very little "face-to-face" street law experience with clients, a primer on how to identify and avoid the pitfalls of a problem client. Not surprisingly, the tips seem to boil down to 1) trust nobody; 2) get retainers paid in full immediately; and 3) never sign the engagement letter until the retainer payment has cleared. The overarching theme of her book seems to be that a failure to do these things will lead a young lawyer into working for nothing simply because they wanted to work at all.
Indeed, it appears the part of her book written for the clients is actually written for the lawyers who need a primer on how to avoid getting stiffed. Oh, it isn't a perfect primer by any stretch of the imagination, because, newsflash, you'll still get stiffed. But at least Porter is trying to help you. I, personally, would just laugh at you. Instead, she has chosen to bury the lede by writing a section for clients that is actually designed to help lawyers, and doing it in such a manner that we don't even realize she's doing it.
Tell someone how they'll get conned, they'll think they're too smart to fall for it. Tell someone how to con another person, and everybody else will suddenly pay attention so they won't get fooled.
This is followed by the amusing case of "Beaver v. Beaver," where Ms. Porter recounts the tale of her first divorce client and her months-long battle for justice. Any experienced practitioner will recognize her client, Donny Beaver, and associate him with one of ours. In fact, while reading this section I was personally embroiled in a battle over a bounced check for my fees with my own Donny Beaver, and it made the section all the better. Ms. Porter, impressively, captures the case and the feeling perfectly, from her assistants ("Raccoon and Hoppy") to the hapless and vindictive Judge Nettle, all the way down to the gum-smacking, drawling judge's secretary, Tonya. Her client, however, is the showstopper with his regular "work a day conman" presentation of everything, and is so accurate it made me pause for a moment, and start thinking of each and every client that currently matches his description, then bring up our firm's billing records to check the status of their payment.
Still, she's telling clients how to avoid paying us. That's not good. In fact, at the conclave last night all of us attorneys got together and decided that she should be stripped of her rights to attend this year's ceremony where all the lawyers in the United States get together to sacrifice a class-action Defendant while chanting "Posner, Learned Hand, Corbin" repeatedly.
But...is she really? Cause the second half of her book, which is by far the more amusing part and tells the tale of "Beaver v. Beaver," is less of a story of how a whip-smart client took advantage of a lawyer, got everything, and didn't pay a dime. Instead it's a warning, ending with the worst of outcomes for the client, and all because he didn't pay his lawyer. In a brief interlude, as heavy-handed as it needs to be to get through the brains of the shitbirds that assume they won't have to pay their lawyers, Porter specifically lays out all of the pitfalls that clients encounter in court when they refuse to pay the lawyer that knows the case and move on to a lawyer that doesn't.
I'm fairly certain it's no accident that Porter, a self-described "carpetbagger from New Yahk" (a term that, as a "reverse carpetbagger," had me laughing out loud), placed this admonition in the part of her book which is the most likely to grip the non-legal reader. The lesson is clear: Stiff your lawyer at your own peril.
Of course, there are some questions as to the validity of some of Porter's advice, given that Sullivan & Cromwell has recently decided to sue clients (something Porter says is unimaginable), but it doesn't impact the gist of the information. Porter's advice and statements are obviously geared towards small practices, not the white shoe firms with the prestige to avoid any bar complaint (or the willingness to sacrifice a single associate for the good of the accounts receivable balance). For that market, the statement is true: small practices don't sue clients because we lack giant compliance and internal defense associates to handle the fallout of doing so.
Unless you're me. I'll sue a motherblimper in a heart beat, but I am, as Porter says:
[O]ne of those weirdo crazy litigious bastards-the sort that will sue his mother because he happened to pass the courthouse with twenty minutes to spare[.]Let me be clear, if you're one of my clients the advice in this book doesn't apply to you. If you don't pay me, I'm taking you down with me. Pay your invoices.
All in all, the book is a delight to read. It's written in a funny and engaging manner, gets the point across, teaches a lesson, and does everything it's supposed to do. However, none of that forgives Ms. Porter's gross violation of our secretive code in purporting to advise clients how to avoid paying our fees.
We're coming for you, Ms. Porter. We don't forgive, we don't forget, and we have some invoices we're going to need you to pay.
You can buy, and probably should buy, Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?by Portia Porter, Esq. on Amazon. It's about ten bucks for the Kindle version, which I suggest as you can take digital notes like "What the hell, man?" throughout the text.