If you want something done right, do it yourself. So goes the old saying. It is of course sometimes difficult for people to trust that other people will complete tasks to the same standard that they themselves would. Attorneys, in particular, often need to rely on other lawyers when they work in the same firm or if they serve the same client while working at different shops. Nevertheless, lawyers should be wary of trusting other attorneys, and they should double check the work of pretty much every lawyer they work with on a project.
Numerous times in my career, I wanted to rely on the work of another lawyer, and I suffered negative consequences. For instance, earlier in my career, I was local counsel for a client that was based in another part of the country. This client’s work was handled by outside counsel that was located close to where the client was headquartered. I figured that since the client’s regular outside counsel did tons of work for the client, they would know best how to manage that client’s legal affairs.
Right before I filed papers for the client, I decided on a lark to go through corporate records to see if the client was being named appropriately in the papers. To my surprise, the phrasing that was used by the client’s normal outside counsel was wrong. Indeed, the exact naming of the client was incorrect! Perhaps more importantly, how this other counsel was describing the client as a successor in interest was not correct. Maybe in other jurisdictions this would have been fine, but in a jurisdiction in which I practice, naming the client incorrectly would have been a big deal and could have led to technical issues down the road.
Sometimes, lawyers cannot rely on other counsel because things are just different in various areas of the country, and local counsel needs to be vigilant about the papers. For instance, one time, I was handling a case as local counsel for a firm that was based in a different area of the country. The local counsel told me that they would draft a motion and have it ready for me in a neatly tied bow. I was very excited about this since I was busy and could use the help from this counsel in completing tasks for our mutual client.
Far too close to the deadline, I first opened the document containing the motion and realized that it would need a ton of work. Some of the issues seemingly related to how things differed from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but other issues were caused by simple sloppiness. I incorrectly thought that I could rely on these other lawyers more than I could, and I needed to spend an incredible amount of time under pressure to get the work done on time.
Sometimes, you cannot even trust lawyers who work at the same firm as you. Lawyers, like everyone else, do not take the same ownership over cases that might not be their own, or attorneys just might not be as focused as you to care about a given legal matter. For instance, one time, another associate at a firm I was working at went to a court conference for one of my cases since I had a conflict and the court conference was going to be a pretty basic appearance. The matter was stayed for years due to a bankruptcy, so at every prior conference, the parties would just say that the case was stayed, and the conference would be over. The associate told me when she returned to the office that the case was stayed due to a bankruptcy, which is what I expected would occur at the conference. I then conveyed to the client that the case was still stayed and that there likely would not be work on this matter for a while.
However, I learned weeks later that the case was not stayed anymore, and this was conveyed at the conference. Apparently, the associate who attended the court conference just checked in with the clerk, saw that the case was still stayed, and then the associate left. The associate did not stay at the conference long enough to see the other attorneys on the case and learn about any updates on the matter. Accordingly, I had to tell the client that the case had not been stayed, which caused some tension between the client and our firm. If I had called one of the attorneys on the case rather than rely on the associate who went to the court conference for me, I might have avoided some issues.
All told, there are certain situations in which you can trust other lawyers to complete legal tasks to your satisfaction. But for a variety of reasons, attorneys should not always trust other lawyers and should double check another lawyer’s work.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.