Avoiding the “Brilliant” Attorney

Last week, I detailed a few specific behaviors for transactional attorneys to avoid. Now, I want to identify and describe a particular general type of attorney to avoid becoming (or to avoid hiring, depending on who you are). Needless to say, there are lots of obvious types you don’t want to be – the kind of attorney who steals client funds, the kind who doesn’t return calls, etc. – but what I have in mind here is a type that is thought of, by many, as the best kind of attorney of all: the “brilliant” attorney.

How to avoid the Brilliant Attorney
The right kind of lawyer

Let me explain, since I know that sounds anti-intellectual. I’m not opposed to being thoughtful and creative. What I have in mind is the attorney who always seems to come up with convoluted provisions, with long formulas and layers of defined terms. And when asked to explain the provisions, the explanation itself is jargon-laden and impenetrable. Some clients who have done many deals and have self-confidence will see through the B.S., but far more will be intimidated by the attorney’s seeming expertise and be forced to take comfort in the fact that they have a genius attorney working on their behalf. But if the client can’t understand what is being agreed to, that’s a failure on the part of the attorney.

This problem is, of course, not unique to corporate law. Think of a surgeon who can’t explain in an understandable fashion the nature and risks of a proposed procedure and possible alternatives; or a fund manager who prefers complex and opaque investments, and can’t adequately explain why that’s an improvement over something simpler. There is a style among professional service-providers generally that, wittingly or not, takes advantage of the insecure and unknowledgeable, and unfortunately, the practitioners of that style are often successful.

Since I’ve managed to attract and retain many clients over my years of independent practice, I figure they must like what I’m doing (or at least tolerate it). If I were to survey my clients to ask what exactly it is they like, my hope would be it’s not that I can bring more brainpower to bear than most of my peers. Rather, the traits I take pride in, and that I hope are the source of my success, are more mundane, such as the use of good judgment in identifying which risks are more important than others, and being responsive and cognizant of the client’s timeline for getting transactions completed. I’ll take “someone you can count on” over “brilliant” any day.