What do you call the smiling, courteous person at a bar association event? The caterer.
Ah, lawyer jokes. They may be good for a chuckle, but often that underlying (sometimes truthful) snark is what gives lawyers a bad reputation. That’s where today’s guest, attorney and author Melody Kramer, comes in. Melody has used her 20+ years as an attorney to literally write the book that tells readers why lawyers think and act like they do, and how clients can use that information to save money and work better with their attorneys.
Melody shares some of her hacks for better client relationships (that focus more on humility than the typical “hard sell”). She also tells us about co-founding an organization for freelance lawyers, long before the gig economy took off.
Listen to our conversation with Melody for a fresh way to think about the practice of law.
John Reed: [00:00] We've all heard the jokes. What do you call 5,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. What do lawyers use for birth control? Their personalities. Why won't sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy. Ha, ha, ha. Very funny. But is the lampooning deserved? Well, maybe.
[00:22] Without going into the whole nature-versus-nurture thing, I will say that law school plays a huge role. It's like a three-plus-year military boot camp. But instead of whipping bodies into shape to turn out soldiers, professors rewire our brains to create highly analytical issue-spotters and problem-solvers, which can be really annoying to others, even other lawyers.
[00:47] So, here's the thing. As a whole, I think most attorneys would tell you they can be difficult, headstrong, calculating, and generally asshole-ish. But to paraphrase Colonel Jessup --famously played by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men-- the public wants us to be like we are. You need us to be like we are.
[01:09] I'm John Reed and this is Sticky Lawyers, a podcast featuring conversations with attorneys who differentiate themselves through the relationships they cultivate with clients and influencers and the unique nature of their law practices.
[01:22] Today, I'm talking with attorney and author Melody Kramer, who uses her 20+ years in the practice to educate readers about why lawyers think and act the way they do and how clients can use that information to save money, to work better with their lawyers, and frankly, be better clients.
[01:40] If you're looking for an apology, you're not going to find it here. Instead, you're going to get a primer on what a layperson should expect from a lawyer and how best to interact. Just be sure to keep your fingers away from the cage. Welcome, Melody.
Melody Kramer: [01:54] Thank you for having me.
John Reed: [01:56] I want to get right into it. You wrote a book. What's it called?
Melody Kramer: [02:00] Why Lawyers Suck!: Hacking the Legal System, Part One.
John Reed: [02:04] Let me ask you this. What was the impetus for the book?
Melody Kramer: [02:07] I actually remember the moment where I came up with the title. I had had a very trying day with opposing counsel. I was handling some massive patent infringement litigation cases, dealing with attorneys -- high-level attorneys -- from around the country.
[02:23] And they were so miserable to deal with. And I realized, they thought the same thing about me. And I hung up the phone, and I just audibly said to the room around me, "Lawyers suck." And I immediately turned to why is that? And why is all of what I'm [02:45] doing every day, how I make a living, making me a miserable person to deal with and having me hang around with people that are miserable to deal with?
John Reed: [02:52] You didn't write this as a swan song or a tell-all on your way out of the practice. You're still practicing. And so, it sounds like from what you just said, it was not only a revelation about other lawyers; there was some introspection and some self-discovery in that too.
Melody Kramer: [03:09] There's a lot of that. And in the book, I go back to the reasons for going to law school in the first place and my experience in the first year of law school in particular. And what I found very interesting was somewhere along this process, I pulled out the book that a lot of people have heard it, but not many have read.
[03:28] And that's One L. Which is Scott Turow?
John Reed: [03:35] Scott Turow -- One L.
Melody Kramer: [03:36] Partway through this process, I went and got the book One L and I read it. And what was so bizarre to me was he had gone to Harvard Law School in the early seventies, I believe. I went to the University of Nebraska in the early nineties. And our experience in law school was almost identical in the major sort of elements of what you go through during the year. And that was freakish to me.
[04:05] I didn't realize that legal education in this country is cookie cutter. It's the same way, and it is the same process of breaking you down and building you up in a new form, as you would expect, like from boot camp in the military. Just little different tweaks to it, but it's the same thing.
John Reed: [04:23] What's interesting about that statement is -- one -- get your legal education where you can because it's going to be the same brainwashing no matter where you go. But I guess the question is, is there another way it could be done? I mean, we've been through it. You and I are both lawyers. We've been through the machine. And kind of like a military boot camp, there's kind of only one way you have a military boot camp: you have a military boot camp. So, I'm wondering if the process of creating lawyers can be changed in a way that would make lawyers less sucky-- if that's a thing.
Melody Kramer: [04:57] Yes, yes. I absolutely think it should change, and I'm not naive enough to think that that would be an easy thing to do, but I think it absolutely needs to change. And I think in some law schools, there is some element of change that is underway. I have read some articles, seen some indications of some more practically approached classes, especially in like the second, third year of law school. But to my knowledge, most law schools still follow that same torturous first-year means of training lawyers.
John Reed: [05:38] Yeah, I think you're right.
Melody Kramer: [05:40] And it turns us into something we were not when we walked in the door.
John Reed: [05:43] To what do you attribute lawyers' suckiness? I mean, okay, it's law school. But in the practice of law, what makes lawyers so difficult as a result of their training?
Melody Kramer: [05:56] We're taught to have different priorities than pretty much anybody else in the world has. And we are trained to see levels of detail in things that aren't always necessary for day-to-day living, that aren't necessary for resolution of disputes. The court system and our legal system -- especially the common law system where we have this ever-increasing ocean of prior decisions that we argue are or are not in favor of whatever we're arguing for that day is -- is inefficient. And it really doesn't help regular people. And because it is so complex, there's not access to real justice for a lot more than just poor people.
[06:50] People who are middle class, businesses, whatever can't afford that crazy process that we are taught to play. I've just seen this over and over again. I've been a trial lawyer for all of these years of my practice, and I see businesses run into the ground over a single dispute. Sometimes a single dispute, maybe with a former employee or some business deal gone awry, and they'll spend the next three or four years in litigation, draining all of their resources and time and money into the battle. That destroys everybody. And yeah, maybe the lawyers will get paid, but really it's not doing any good to society. It's not doing good to anybody. And it's causing early graves for the lawyers, so it's really not helping anybody.
John Reed: [07:42] And to be fair, that's not just because, in a matter like that, it's a bunch of greedy lawyers and a judge that buys into the system. It's the system that requires that process to resolve the dispute short of a settlement.
Melody Kramer: [07:56] Yes. We take little disputes, and we blow them up and make them bigger and stretch them out and analyze them under our microscope. And we find new things to argue about, and we do this as long as the money lasts.
John Reed: [08:09] Your book is less of a "how to not suck for lawyers" than it is more as --kind of what I alluded to earlier-- a primer for clients and maybe even pro se litigants to understand lawyers and the system that they work in. Is that a fair representation?
Melody Kramer: [08:30] Yes. Yes, it is. I haven't gotten to the book that gives more guidance to lawyers of how to not suck --that's in progress-- but I figured it had to start out with… you know what they say with alcoholics and drug addicts? The first thing is admit you have a problem. And for me, this was sort of the admitting I have a problem and my fellow lawyers have a problem. And while we haven't figured out how to fix that yet, you non-lawyers who have to deal with attorneys, here's some insight and here are a few tips on how to navigate this crazy landscape that you find yourself in.
John Reed: [09:09] You mentioned your origin story for the book. I remember I spent a full day doing depositions. I came home --I think I was in my first year of marriage-- came home to my wife. And I don't know if I asked, "What's for dinner," or "What are we doing for dinner?" But I found myself saying, "It's a yes or no question. Just answer yes or no." And that was the "aha" moment of, "Oh my gosh. I'm living this lawyer thing, and I either need to figure out a way to wall it off or do something different." And I guess I chose the latter.
Melody Kramer: [09:38] You're not the only one. I hear these stories all the time about how being a lawyer, and even law school has dramatically interfered with interpersonal relationships with spouses, with children. It happens all the time. It's not an anomaly. It happens for everybody. Yeah. I don't know any completely well-adjusted lawyers unless they are out of litigation, for one thing. And don't work a regular law firm job. The only reasonably happy lawyers I know are ones who have taken an alternate path.
John Reed: [10:17] In your book, you offer "hacks," as you call them, that a client can use to save time and money and reduce the headaches when dealing with attorneys and legal issues. Can you give us some examples of those hacks?
Melody Kramer: [10:50] Some of them are just being sort of aware of things as you go along and interacting with your environment differently. For example, and I've heard this time and time again of clients try to talk to me out in the hallway of the courtroom before a court hearing and just deluge me with all these new, additional facts about a case. And I can't comprehend that then at that moment, that point in time. I simply cannot. And so, I'm sure at a point later on, they're like, "I already told you this." Well, yeah, you told me that in an environment that I was not going to comprehend it. Send me an email. Talk to me in a regularly scheduled appointment, not when I'm under the effects of the adrenaline of just before a court hearing.
John Reed: [11:24] Melody, I'm curious, should lay clients treat their lawyers more like doctors and not be afraid to get second opinions, especially when there's so much on the line? That is not something I've heard a lot of. And yet, it seems like it would be in line with these hacks that you've described.
Melody Kramer: [11:44] Totally, although not in the sense of talking to somebody who's in law school or did a Google search.
John Reed: [11:51] Yeah.
Melody Kramer: [11:52] Although, I will tell you this. There's so much information available out there, and I have, in fact, had clients come to me saying, "Look, I understand I'm not the lawyer, but I did the Google search and I found this. Is this accurate?" That is so helpful to me because I cannot know everything about everything. I just can't. And if I have to search out every single question independently, pulling up Westlaw or Lexis, it takes a lot of time and money. A Google search may well find something that is helpful for me to then dig down and say, yes, that applies to you, or it does not apply to you.
John Reed: [12:29] You actually just gave a lawyer tip within there. You didn't know that, even though your book is meant for non-lawyers. You know, if you're a lawyer and a client comes to you and says, "I did some research and I found this." If your knee-jerk reaction is to say, "Let me do the research, you just be the client." If you, as a lawyer, dismiss it, you're making a mistake. I have a colleague who says that there are no pediatricians anymore because all the moms go to Web MD. I think you do need to respect the client that wants to be educated. The internet has -- I'm not going to say leveled the playing field-- but with all the information that's out there and the rise of the general intelligence and people wanting to educate themselves, I think you have to take that seriously.
Melody Kramer: [13:10] Absolutely take it seriously. And I actually encourage my clients to do that. And it has helped me immensely because then I'm not fighting against them thinking that, "I read this on the internet. My lawyer says this. Which do I do?" Let's talk about it and let's sort out if there's a discrepancy.
[13:28] The other thing that I've found in that process is, for example, in drafting contracts, it takes a lot of time and, therefore, a lot of money to draft contracts for businesses starting from scratch. I need to talk to them about their business, about what they do --this, that, and the other thing. And so, the price tag is going to be a lot higher than if they, for example, go spend their own time, Google around, look for forms, and put together a draft based on stuff that they found on the internet. It takes a lot less time for me to go through and vet that and raise some red, add a few clauses here and there. It's a lot cheaper for them and it's frankly less stressful for me.
John Reed: [14:11] Of course, you know, the name of this podcast is Sticky Lawyers and the idea that lawyers are memorable for good reasons. I guess the question becomes, can sticky lawyers still be sucky lawyers? And can --or I guess maybe-- can sucky lawyers still be sticky lawyers? Is there a means to be good at what you do, still be kind of a jerk, and still be known for good things in the public's mind?
Melody Kramer: [14:39] Yes, I think so. I will be honest. As a litigator, I am often hired to be --obnoxious seems like a strong word-- but I think some opposing counsel and parties would let it fall within that description. I'm hired to be very aggressive. I'm hired to be in the face of the other side to whatever the dispute is. It doesn't mean I'm a sucky lawyer necessarily if I'm sticking within the bounds of vigorous representation. But if I go over the line, which clients have asked me to more than once, then it's a problem. But it's also a problem if I just accept whatever my client asks and do it because I may know that it is not in their best interest, and I should do everything I can to talk them out of it, if that is the appropriate course.
John Reed: [15:38] When I coach lawyers on business development, there's this odd choice between promoting yourself as an attorney while also acknowledging the likelihood that the next prospective client you meet has had a bad experience with a lawyer or the law. It's tough because you want to get out there that you're a lawyer and you're qualified, but you also know that there's a bad stigma.
[16:03] So, I mean, I am absolutely proud to be an attorney. I spent a lot of time, and God knows money, to get my Juris Doctor. I went through the proctology exam that we know is the bar exam, and I've used all my experience and training for good, not evil. So similar to your hacks for laypeople, what advice would you give to lawyers about dealing with lay clients?
Melody Kramer: [16:24] Well, a little humbleness goes a long way. You may be an expert in what you do. But when you approach your clients or prospective clients with a certain measure of humility --of I'm not God; I can't promise a good outcome for you, but I can guide you through this process. And give some examples. And also, some cautionary information. I think that goes a long way to building credibility.
[16:54] The other thing is that I have for years now been very respectful of giving potential clients space. I'm not there to be a high-pressure salesman to listen to their case and say, "Oh yes, I can go get you a million dollars or whatever." No, I'd rather give a more realistic practical analysis and then send them --if they're interested-- the fee agreement and sometimes a little sort of plan of attack of what I would do. Just short form and send it to them and let them review it on their own time. Talk with the important people in their life. Do some Google searches if they want, talk to other attorneys that they want. So that when they actually sign on the dotted line, I know they're committed to me representing them on whatever the issue is, and I didn't push them into it.
John Reed: [17:52] That's so interesting. There are --particularly in the personal legal space, personal injury, and other things like that-- you've got so many lawyers that want to sign you right away so that some other lawyer does not sign you right away. So, this idea of space, of contemplation, of allowing the client to choose you for you, as opposed to you being first in line, that's quite an eye-opener.
Melody Kramer: [18:16] And I understand that goes completely backward from what most people who do marketing and sales would tell you. But I think the proof is in how your practice develops. And right now, I routinely get inquiries from people who want to get me more potential clients, more leads every month. And I kind of laugh because right now I'm scared when the phone rings. Because it's like, "Oh no. I don't have time in my schedule to even contemplate another client right now." So, something that I've been doing over the years is working.
John Reed: [18:57] Let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a situation where you talked to a potential client, gave them advice, gave them their space? They went with another attorney and then they came back to you because, upon contemplation, you were the better choice?
Melody Kramer: [19:13] Yes. Yes, I have more than once. One situation that I remember was a matter of business formation. And I don't know if my price tag was too high or what the situation was, but they had gone another route and came back to me like a year or two later. And things had gone south in a very catastrophic fashion. And it made me sad because the way it had been done made undoing it really hard. And I'm very big on when I'm working on entity creation --and especially when it involves more than one business partner--- I am so adamant about, we have to have something in an agreement between the two of you of what happens if X, Y, or Z happens, because when you're friends, it's easier to negotiate terms of anything. And if you say, okay, if we don't want to do business together anymore, if one person wants to step aside, here's how that plays out. If you put that in the beginning documents, it's less tension on that business relationship from the get-go because everybody knows what an exit looks like.
[20:34] And I'm big about avoiding litigation now. Having been in courtrooms for so long, I really focus on how can we avoid that? How can I help you as a client now avoid that catastrophic case of having to go to court and debate this? Let's just resolve this quickly now instead of the hell that awaits you in court.
John Reed: [20:56] Well, going back to what you said about clients coming back to you, I guess it's true. If you love your client or your prospective clients, set them free. If they love you, they'll come back. Right?
Melody Kramer: [21:08] Very much so. Very much so.
John Reed: [22:13] Melody, to switch gears here, describe for me what it means to be a freelance lawyer.
Melody Kramer: [22:20] A freelance lawyer is someone with all the credentials for being a lawyer but who is working in a non-traditional relationship with a law firm. As in, they're not an associate, they're not a partner. They are their own independent lawyer, but they are doing work for a law firm. The law firm is the one with the relationship with the client.
John Reed: [22:43] Okay. I guess by your definition, it's different from a solo practitioner because...
Melody Kramer: [22:48] A solo practitioner has direct clients. They're just a smaller size.
John Reed: [22:54] So, to the freelancer, the law firm for whom they're doing the work is the client.
Melody Kramer: [22:59] Yes.
John Reed: [23:00] You have lived the life of a freelance attorney. Tell us about your career path and why this designation of freelance lawyer has become so important to you.
Melody Kramer: [23:11] Well, when I graduated from law school in '93, the economy had tanked, and that had great ripple effects to legal placement for lawyers getting out of law school. I think in one year it had gone from somewhere in the nineties, of placement of law graduates before graduation, to about 37 percent the year that I graduated.
[23:37] Even people who are on law review were struggling to get job offers. And I was in the top 55 percent of my class, so I wasn't in the running for nor was I seeking a large law firm position. I was in Nebraska. There aren't that many large law firms anyway there. I actually wanted to do criminal prosecution in California, and I think there were only maybe like three counties that were even hiring at that time. And the competition was fierce. So here I am. I've got my JD, waiting for my bar results, and I had to go back to working temp secretarial work to pay the bills while I'm waiting for my bar results and looking for a job.
[24:20] It was really demoralizing at the time. But, you know, you've gone that far; you've just got to keep pushing wherever it is you can work. And for me, I asked the temp agency where I worked --and this was before even legal placement agencies were few and far between, and there certainly weren't any in Nebraska-- but I asked the temp agency I was working for, "If you get a call in from a law firm, I don't care if it's emptying the trash, put me there. I don't care. I just want to make those connections." They eventually did. I took a week off from my other temporary gig at a software company and took a week at this law firm and was a receptionist for a week.
[25:03] And it was such an amazing experience working with this law firm. And they loved me so much that they offered me a job of sorts. They weren't looking to hire an associate right then, but they did have some overflow work, some cases they couldn't do. And they offered me a deal where I could do that. The pay was a lot less than associates get paid, but I was getting experience. I was building my resume.
[25:32] So, that's what I did. And I worked with them off and on, and at a point, I was doing work in exchange for office space while I built up my own small practice. And it was a great sort of relationship. I also did work for other law firms like writing appellate briefs, making court appearances. Law firms that didn't have a need to hire someone but had extra work and I needed the work, and it worked out well. But it was something that people didn't really do.
[26:01] And it wasn't until later on that I got this sense of "bigger than me," that there were a lot of lawyers who were working in sort of those capacities in basements and dark corners and thinking they weren't real lawyers. No, this actually can work out to be a real career choice or certainly a bridge from one thing to another.
John Reed: [26:20] It sounds like there are different flavors here. One can be a hundred percent freelance. One can be partial freelance, in your case. It's a great way to begin your practice. Maybe if you want to grow it because there's guaranteed income or at least some semblance of income coming in while you do that. And it sounds like it also lets you control your time a little bit more.
Melody Kramer: [26:46] Very much so. You don't have the same sort of billable hour requirements that are really kind of insane at the large traditional law firms. Some people don't want to do that for whatever reason. I seem to work better in a situation where I have control over my hours. I work ridiculously long hours. I am a workaholic --recovering workaholic-- but it's my time. And somehow, that's just a better thing for me. What I also realized with the freelancing --and I started my own law practice about two years in after law school-- but it allowed this flexibility of time.
[27:29] So, when I started having too much stuff to do, which is a good sign for your law firm, instead of just working yourself into the grave, you can hire another freelancer to help you out on a project on a case. It gives that sort of balance and flexibility that solo practitioners usually don't have.
John Reed: [27:47] Yeah, that is interesting. I mean, you're an independent contractor, and so the law firm hiring can't exert too much control over what you do; otherwise, you'd be considered an employee. But it gives you the opportunity either in that role or as you have your own clients to then bring in other freelancers.
Melody Kramer: [28:05] It's also a great way to establish your credentials in the community because a law firm that has used you as a freelancer and sees what your skills and abilities are, they will sometimes roll work down to you --clients that maybe can't afford their billable rates, but can afford your lower rates-- and so it's a way sometimes to get business that way for your own practice if you represent clients on your own as well.
John Reed: [28:32] Or you're in a different practice area from the firm that you're contracted with, and they may refer that work to you because they don't do it. So, it's a win-win; it sounds great.
John Reed: [28:41] The role of freelance lawyer is so important to you that you started a website and an organization. Maybe you can tell us about that.
Melody Kramer: [28:50] In 2006, I believe it was, I started freelancelaw.com. And this was before really the growth in emergence of websites like Upwork and Fiverr and whatever. But what I designed was something to connect law firms with freelance attorneys and also freelance paralegals.
[29:13] We had 1200 people on the website at its height. And what I found was we needed more than just a website because there was already this environment in the legal industry that nobody knew what a freelance lawyer was, really. Like I said, hiding in basements, they weren't out networking and out at CLE events saying, "Oh yeah, I'm a freelance lawyer." No one knew we existed, really. So, a friend and I started the National Association of Freelance Legal Professionals and started trying to find them around the country. And we did, and it was very interesting to see their stories. And there were a number of freelancers who had been working in that capacity for many years and were just sort of stunned to see some sort of organizational framework around what they were doing.
[30:10] But it was very much the tip of the spear there in trying to give visibility to this and trying to educate both the freelance side and the law firm side. How all that worked, why they needed each other, and so forth. It was a very interesting process. And then, at some point, the two merged together, and that has since been acquired by Montage Legal Group here in Orange County. And they still continue on to this day.
John Reed: [30:43] It's so interesting. What you did was to give credibility to something that either was new or, in some cases, frowned upon and made it not only acceptable, maybe preferable, and a different way of being sticky. So much of what we talk about on this podcast is niches, you know, certain practice areas or industries or types of clients. And until now, until talking with you, I hadn't really considered that being a freelance lawyer is a niche. And so, one can excel at that and be a sticky lawyer. Even if that stickiness, if you will, is with law firms that hire that freelance lawyer.
Melody Kramer: [31:28] Very true.
John Reed: [31:29] What you've described in terms of freelance lawyers is now what we know as the gig economy. How has the freelance law world changed with the advent of the gig economy and the gig workforce?
Melody Kramer: [31:43] We're now cycling around into a new era as it were with freelancing and the gig economy. All of a sudden, these freelancers of all industries are realizing they don't have a voice, and they don't have the money for lawyers because they're little people, you know? They're Uber drivers, they're, you know, freelance, this, that, and the other thing. To find a way to solve that problem of giving gig workers and freelancers a voice and allow them to pursue their career in a way that freelance lawyers have been able to do. Very important thing. Well, I think lawyers -- any lawyers that deal with small businesses or just people in general really should dig into that and see what's going on because that is a growing economy. And I think lawyers should be on the forefront of solutions for that, as opposed to just waiting a decade like we usually do with other trends that are going on.
John Reed: [32:46] Well, Melody, it's been fun to discuss at length the various reasons why you and I suck and to learn more about the freelance lawyer career track. Before we go, if people listening today want to buy your book, where can they go?
Melody Kramer: [33:00] You can get it on Amazon, and it's under Why Lawyers Suck, but I know that language has been offensive to some people; it's gotten me banned from Facebook and whatever. So, I also have it published under another name, which is Lawyers Decoded. Same content, a little less "in your face" title. Both of those are available on Amazon, so check it out.
John Reed: [33:23] Okay. And for lawyers who want to learn more about freelancing and becoming part of the now what is known as the gig economy movement as lawyers, where can they go to learn more?
Melody Kramer: [33:33] Well, I'm working on building my website, but you can go there and sign up, and I'll give you more information: Legalgreenhouse.com.
John Reed: [33:40] Fantastic. Melody Kramer, it's been delightful talking with you. I really appreciate it. I know I've learned a lot, and thanks so much for your time today.
Melody Kramer: [33:48] Thank you so much. Have a great day.
John Reed: [36:48] And thank you for listening. To hear this episode again, or download other Sticky Lawyers episodes, visit stickylawyers.com. There you'll be able to view episode transcripts, behind-the-scenes notes, and recommend a standout lawyer you know who might be a future guest. And please don't forget to subscribe to this podcast. Everyone at Rain BDM who works so hard to produce this podcast would greatly appreciate it. Until next time, I'm John Reed, and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.
Melody Kramer is a trial lawyer, author, speaker, innovator, and visionary. She is the founder of Legal Greenhouse (legalgreenhouse.com) and the National Association of Freelance Attorneys (freelancelaw.com). Her books - Why Lawyers Suck!: Hacking the Legal System, Part 1 and Lawyers Decoded: Essential Knowledge for Saving Money and Reducing Legal Hassles - are available on Amazon and elsewhere.