My Story

Judges And Law

Dealing With Lawyers

By James Donahue

There is a joke that goes: How can you tell if it’s really cold outside? Answer: A lawyer has his hands in his own pockets.

In my years as a journalist covering police and court news, I have personally known and associated with numerous Michigan lawyers and judges. I liked many of them and actually admired at least three judges that I worked with. In later years, however, I began running into smooth-talking lawyers that could not be trusted. I cannot explain the change that came over these professional people. Nearly all of them appeared to have some kind of “god” complex and became ultra greedy. They seemed to think that anything they did for a client, right down to answering a telephone call was worth a lot of money.

There were some real stinkers among the lot.

I recall a district judge in Sanilac County that attempted to blackmail the County Board of Commissioners into giving him a large increase in salary. This man was named to the board of a state agency that had the power of funneling federal grant money into the district courts to improve probation services. He threatened to withhold this money to his own court if he didn’t get the raise he wanted. When I learned what he had done through my sources and reported his shenanigans. The judge reacted strangely. He didn’t deny the story but issued a court order demanding that I disclose my sources. My editor had to hire legal counsel to fight him. We exposed this judge and I believe the story was instrumental in getting him booted out of office when it was time for re-election.

Yet another lawyer, whom I once thought well of and had even hired for some personal legal work, lost my respect when he defended a man in a kidnap and rape case. During the preliminary examination in the lower court, this lawyer forced the young female victim to describe the assault in graphic detail. He went far beyond the testimony needed to prove a crime and get the case bound over into Circuit Court for trial. This happened in the same district court and before the same judge that attempted to blackmail the county. This judge permitted this testimony. It was clear that the lawyers and the judge in the courtroom were enjoying the torture they were putting this girl through.

I recall a lawyer who sat as a member of the Mental Health Board in the county where I worked. When the agency became entangled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit following the firing of a mental health employee, the board engaged this lawyer to represent itself in court. We thought it was conflict of interest. I wrote a news story that forced the county prosecutor (another lawyer) to seek a legal opinion from the Michigan Attorney General’s office. In Michigan only a licensed state lawyer could ask for such an opinion. The problem was that this lawyer and the prosecutor worked in a rural county and knew each other well. The opinion from the Attorney General’s office was that the lawyer would not be in conflict. Later I learned that the question put before the Attorney General was written in such a way that the opinion would be favorable to the lawyer in question. Once the trial opened, this lawyer was caught coaching a witness and the judge declared a mistrial. The court ordered that particular lawyer removed from the case.

A few years ago, after retiring from that job, my wife and I were living in a small Northern Michigan community where she worked in the local hospital as a medical technologist. She had an incident on the job and we needed legal counsel. But we couldn’t find a lawyer in the area that wasn’t associated at the local country club circle with the hospital administrator and all of the doctors. We attempted to hire a lawyer from out of the area to represent us and were told it was too far for them to drive. We found that it was going to be impossible to get fair legal representation. We dealt with the matter as best we could on our own.

As regular readers of his web site may remember, my wife and I suffered extensive vandalism to our home in 2008 when we were visiting family in California. When we turned a claim into our insurance company we immediately came in conflict with the hired adjuster who came to examine the damage. After getting bids from qualified contractors to repair the damage, the report submitted by this man made it possible for the insurance company to offer only a portion of the settlement we needed and that our insurance policy should have covered. After we became deadlocked with our insurance company we hired a lawyer to represent us. That was a very bad mistake.

We waited for months while the lawyer and the regional agent for the insurance company made telephone calls, sent emails and wrote letters back and forth. We made a large cash down payment to this lawyer with a verbal request that when he used up this money we were to be notified before taking the matter any farther. There was no written contract agreement. We later learned that Michigan does not require lawyers to draft written contracts with their clients. The verbal agreement was not honored. After wasting months making numerous telephone calls, sending and receiving written letters and e-mails, and charging for every minute of time spent, nothing was accomplished. Winter passed. In the meantime the plumbing in the hot water heating system froze and burst, thus causing another large claim for damages.

The next spring I began researching Michigan agencies that govern insurance companies and discovered an obscure state agency called the Department of Labor, Energy and Economic Growth. Within that department is a division of Consumer Services and within that division is an office that handles complaints against insurance companies. We found a telephone number and called it. The operator connected us to a very friendly woman who listened to our complaint. She asked us to send a formal letter of complaint and attach any documentation we had. She gave us a fax number to speed up the process. We prepared a volume of information, including a copy of our insurance policy, the letters received from the insurance agent, and various other documents related to our case.

A few days later we received a letter from the lawyer scolding us for going behind his back and contacting this state agency. The letter also said the lawyer was on the verge of reaching a settlement with the insurance company for much more than the original offer, but that because of our meddling, the “people at the top” in the insurance office were “digging in their heels” and now refusing to budge.

A week or two after that, the woman in the Lansing office called to say that she talked to the top officers of the insurance company, which also was headquartered in Lansing, and that they agreed to pay for all of the repairs required to restore our home. Not only this, but we were going to be reimbursed for our living costs while unable to stay in our home. If there were any additional damages beyond what we already knew about, these also would be covered. The woman in this state agency accomplished all of this within a few days at no charge to us.

We immediately notified the lawyer that his services were no longer required. He sent a bill for another $1,700. I objected, demanding that he explain why he thought we owed so much more money when nothing had been done on our behalf. We received a long legal diatribe explaining all of the calling the negotiating that had gone on, plus a list of every telephone call, every letter, every fax, every e-mail that had been sent and received. It seems the lawyer charged for every recorded minute devoted to this case, even though his underpaid secretary and assistant legal workers did the work.

We also discovered that this lawyer’s office was located in the same small Upper Michigan town that the agent representing the insurance company worked in. Thus it was very possible that the woman in the insurance office and the lawyer we hired knew each other. I strongly suspected that they were working together to run our legal bill into the clouds.

We attempted to file a complaint with the state against this lawyer but learned that everything he did was within the law. In Michigan lawyers are not required to draft written binding contracts with clients. We were obligated to pay his bill for services never performed.

The moral of this story is simple. Never hire a lawyer unless you know and really think you can trust this person. And even then you stand a good chance of getting swindled.. These guys charge $300 to $500 an hour or more for doing things that we can either do for ourselves or (at least in the days before the crooks in Washington drove the nation into bankruptcy) find a government agent to do for us without charge. Legal documents are filled with jargon that most people do not understand. But a good computer with a legal dictionary and thesaurus will go a long way to unravel all of the mystery behind those legal words. The simplicity of what lawyers really do for the people who hire them will astound you. What it really takes is someone with some clout who will make a few telephone calls, write some letters, and go to bat for you.

In my years working as a reporter, and having to unravel all of the jargon used by the professionals, I discovered that it is not only lawyers, but medical people, bankers, insurance companies and even educators who hide under the barrage of professional jargon.

The whole thing is a scam that needs to be exposed.