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Listserves: The Problem or the Solution For Improving Lawyer Competency?

When I'm asked to list the resources that have helped improve my competency as a lawyer, I'd place blogs and listserves high on the list. In particular, the guidance that I've received from that mother-of-all-solo-listserves, Solosez has helped me tackle issues far more effectively than I could have on my own, while other feedback has enabled me to avert unwanted conflicts and difficult clients.

So I was surprised to come across this post on the misuse of listserves at the Injury Board by Iowa personal injury attorney Steve Lombardi. Lombardi writes:

But the lawyer LISTSERV has become a place where lazy lawyers fool themselves into thinking they can get questions answered and avoid associating with more qualified lawyers. I suspect they do this for several reasons, none worthy of discussion because no excuse is good enough for me when the client's interests are being subjugated to the lawyer's...The lawyers I'm referring to who misuse the LISTSERV are lawyers with enough experience to know better. They are usually on their own, sole practitioners with a history of taking cases they have no business taking and who regularly settle cases without ever trying one. They advertise themselves as being trial lawyers but have very little trial experience.

Lombardi argues that trial association listserves must do a better job of monitoring the lists to weed out or discourage "inexperienced lawyers" who "con their way into a case" and use the listserve as a fallback.

I don't agree with Lombardi. In my view, the availability of a listserve doesn't give lawyers added incentive to take cases beyond their competency. Even before listserves, lawyers accepted cases beyond their skills for a variety of reasons: sometimes to gain experience, sometimes because of greed and sometimes because they don't even know that they're out of their depth. Rather than exacerbate this problems, listserves offer a solution, by serving as a lifeline to lawyers in over their head. Cutting lawyers' access to listserves will guarantee that they'll be flying blind in a case, which will harm the client even more.

In addition, on some of the best listserves, lawyers will exchange advice as a matter of professional courtesy and build relationships with other lawyers, who may eventually bring the other lawyer on board or refer the case out. In fact, some of the lawyers who gain the most business from listserves are those who give the most freely of their advice, just like some of the bloggers who are most generous with free information (think for example, the Miller and Zois help center that posts dozens of free documents that help other PI lawyers) are also the most respected.

Lombardi sounds as if he's tired of giving away advice. Fair enough. If that's the case, Lombardi ought to leave the listserve - not shut it down for everyone else.

Note: I'm made some minor stylistic changes since the original post.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 17, 2007 at 03:33 AM in Tech & Web | Permalink


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I see a lot of merit in Steve Lombardi's observations, and share his concerns with a certain criminal listserv to which I belong.
He doesn't say that they listserv provides no meaningful benefit or is always used for evil purposes, but that it enables, perhaps even encourages, sloppy practice by a group that would otherwise have to do their own work.

By definition, there will be a group who vehemently disagrees with Steve's assessment and thinks that listserves are fabulous, wonderful things. These would be the beneficiaries of the problems Steve writes about.

For some purposes, listserves can be terrific, such as spreading breaking news. But when a person asks a specific, significant question after research has failed to reveal an answer, and all the responses begin, "Well, I don't actually know anything about this, but...", it's embarassing.

Frankly, the best thing about a listserv is how you learn that people you thought were competent lawyers are actually clueless by the questions they pose.

Posted by: SHG | Dec 18, 2007 5:07:37 AM

Carolyn: I believe you've missed the point of my original post. I've posted a response and it is scheduled to post at 12:30 pm today... And ask yourself, "How do I know I'm getting good advice and mentoring if it comes from lawyers with lesser experience?" "Is the LISTSERV culture driving away those more experienced lawyers?" What I don't discuss are sub-lists that I do advocate. This would allow a lawyer to opt into LISTSERV's by subject rather than be held hostage on those having no value to them. A menu of subjects from which to choose. Busy lawyers have little time for wasted anything.

Posted by: Steve Lombardi | Dec 17, 2007 10:31:45 AM

Carolyn, Lombardi sounds as if he is talking about one or two 'experienced' lawyers, not inexperienced, who are taking advantage of the listserv to their client's detriment. It's not a condemnation of listservs when you read his entire post.

As in any profession there is always a group who will skirt their professional responsibilities to their clients and get away with it. That's human nature. The fact they use a listserv as one of many vehicles to do it is not a condemnation of the listserv. It sounds like he is venting, the privilege of blogging.

Posted by: Susan Cartier Liebel | Dec 17, 2007 9:43:16 AM

When I was working one elder law issues, the NAELA elder law listservs were terrific. Far from being a crutch for the lazy, it was a terrific educational tool. Mostly, I just read the emails and learned. When I did ask questions, often the answers from experienced practitioners would quickly tell me whether I was in over my head.

The one problem with listservs in general is the sheer volume of emails, which I could never keep up with completely. I would love to see a "Digg-like" solution for listservs, where listserv members could rate topics by relevance, topic, etc. and the best questions, answers, etc. would rise to the top.

Posted by: Karen Eaton | Dec 17, 2007 8:29:37 AM

As a plaintiff's lawyer, I agree with your post. I am involved in several plaintiffs' lawyers listserves (both formal and informal). They not only allow the participating attorneys to be more efficient, but allows those involved to stay on top of new developments, and allows us to brainstorm the best responses to ever-changing areas of law. In a system where settlement amounts are influenced by settlements and jury verdicts achieved by others in our field, we generally recognize that a victory for one is a victory for all.

Lombardi does have a point about people taking cases that they are not qualified to take, but that's not a problem with listserves --- that's a universal problem with attorneys (and probably other professions, as well).

Posted by: Brooks Schuelke | Dec 17, 2007 6:56:26 AM

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