Who Taught My Client How to Avoid Paying Me?
Portia Porter is the author of Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?: Tales of How Cunning Clients Can Get Free Legal Work, as Told by an Experienced Divorce Attorney. Her book details all the many ways that wily clients may, can, have, and will escape paying their legal bills.
She answers the question posed as the title of her book with a definitive yes. But not only that, she give step-by-step instructions to would-be clients about the hows and whys of effectively escaping payment on a legal bill. By all appearances, Portia Porter has committed professional treason. Her name may be remembered along the likes of Brutus, Benedict Arnold, and Julius & Ethel Rosenberg.
Or considered differently, perhaps Portia Porter is a hero (or if you’re unready to accept that, maybe an anti-hero?) for forewarning and preparing lawyers for the myriad schemes, scams, and strategies that clever clients will employ to evade paying for legal services.
Nevertheless, here’s my interview with Portia Porter:
JWR: Let’s start with the title, Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? — it’s provocative and alarming and I’m sure it didn’t earn you any new friends in the legal profession. How did you land on that title?
PP: Once upon a time, many years ago, I read a chatroom exchange between two young women, Heather and Julia. Heather needed some advice. Julia responded with advice. Here’s how it went.
Heather was happily married. Heather’s husband had a good job and provided for her. Heather did not have to work. There was a child on the way, and Heather’s husband was a proud father to be. Indeed, Heather and her husband even made public announcement that they were expecting. All the grandparents were pleased and proud. Life was good for Heather. But everything changed unexpectedly when Heather’s husband revealed that he had been sleeping with another woman for all that time. Husband wanted a divorce.
Heather was surprised and angry. Or, in her own words, “blindsided” and “not going to sit back and take having my life I thought we had be ripped away from me.”
Heather wanted her comfortable life back. So Heather formulated a plan. She decided to hire (and I quote again) “a good attorney who will look out for my best interest in the most ruthless way possible.”
Heather wanted her happy life back, and she expected that a lawyer could do that for her.
So far, so good.
But, of course, remember, Heather was unemployed and had no intention of looking for a job. How could she get a “good” lawyer to fight “ruthlessly” for her, without paying him?
That was the dilemma, and that’s where Heather turned to the divorce chatroom. She needed advice on how to get a “ruthless lawyer.”
In the chatroom, there was another girl, Julia. She responded to Heather with advice. The street-wise Julia was succinct. Here’s what she told Heather. I quote Julia’s advice in its entirety:
From Julia to Heather: Drag it out, then stiff your lawyer is my suggestion.
That’s it. “Stiff your lawyer.” No instructions for what, how, when, or maybe what to avoid. Just “stiff the lawyer.”
When I read this exchange, my first impulse was to jump in and say: “Julia, dear street-wise Julia, your heart is clearly in the right place, but that’s not good advice to give our trusting Heather! She’ll get eaten alive!”
Stiffing a lawyer requires a fine-tuned plan, good knowledge of the legal system, some basic understanding of lawyer psychology. Julia was providing none of that. Just “stiff the lawyer!” I wanted to write to Heather and say: “Heather, are you nuts?! You couldn’t even spot the problem in your own house. Your genius husband cheating on you at the same time he was celebrating your pregnancy with all the grandparents—and that moron outsmarted you! What chance do you think you have fooling a “ruthless” lawyer?!” I wanted to tell Heather: “Look, why don’t you start with a simpler mark. At least, get some kid right out of law school. Maybe you can fool a naïve beginner?”
But, of course, I could not write to Julia or Heather. Who would believe me? I am a lawyer. I must be looking out for number one. Right?
That’s when I first got the idea for the book, “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” – a book that maps out how lawyers get stiffed, but that also warns the naïve young ladies like Heather of the plentiful traps that await clients who stiff their lawyers.
As a lawyer who has been stiffed many-many times, for many-many hundreds of thousands of dollars, I do know 100% more than I wish that I knew about successful stiffing. In all modesty, I am an expert in being stiffed. And now anyone who reads the book, whether an inexperienced attorney or a prospective client, can be too.
JWR: While the subject matter is serious and you treat it with sufficient deference, the book is written with a sense of humor. Do you consider yourself a funny person, and more importantly, do others find you funny?
PP: I am dead serious, all the time. I have no idea why my books provokes all the belly-laughter.
JWR: You wrote in the book: “The stark truth about civil litigation is that fighting a crooked defendant is much more expensive than fighting an honest defendant. The law works fairly well against the honest people but collecting from a deadbeat is uncertain and expensive.” That’s been both my personal and professional experience as well—do you have any tips for making collections either more certain or less expensive?
PP: No. Unless collections is your area of practice, a lawyer should never be doing collections at all. My book provides step by step instructions on how to get paid for every hour you work, but I have no tips on making collections less expensive. I can’t make death less certain either.
JWR: We undoubtedly want to avoid becoming the lawyer who’s stiffed by a client and is then faced with the prospect of either wading the miasmatic waters of suing the ex-client or writing off the loss. What are the best ways to put yourself in a better position?
PP: Read “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” by Portia Porter.
JWR: You don’t seem to harbor warm feelings for the state bars’ grievance processes, which allow investigations to be opened on unfounded complaints and often without any form of “due process” for the lawyer. What do you think can be done to improve the process, making it fair for both lawyers and those with grievances?
PP: The Grievance process dispenses with constitutional protections for lawyers. There is no due process, no right to face your accuser. And it is easy to use the grievance process for slander. If my opposing counsel stands in the middle of the Ducklingburg town square and calls me a whore, I can file a lawsuit sounding in slander, and sue him into bankruptcy. Why is that? That is because my good name for chastity is protected in America. The law thinks that I care deeply whether the good people of my hometown Ducklingburg continue thinking of me as a chaste woman. But in contrast, if a man stands in the middle of the city square and declares that he had just filed a grievance against me, and that I am a terrible, unethical lawyer, there is not much I can do to fight that bad reputation. Even if it later turns out that the whole grievance was a lie, I do not have a slander suit. Grievance process is protected that way.
Well, this may come as a surprise to you, but I care much more about my professional reputation than my reputation for chastity.
What could we do to improve the process? I am not going to presume to know the answer. My book is not about fixing the system. My book is a law practice management book. Lawyers who start or manage their own practices and clients who hire them are well served to understand the system. That’s all.
JWR: In his commentary on your book, Boozy Barrister remarked: “Not surprisingly, the tips seem to boil down to 1) trust nobody; 2) get retainers paid in full immediately; and 3) never sign the engagement letter until the retainer payment has cleared. The overarching theme of her book seems to be that a failure to do these things will lead a young lawyer into working for nothing simply because they wanted to work at all.” Do you agree with that assessment?
PP: Yes, Boozy is right on the money. The problem for young lawyers is that these tips sound a lot like “buy low sell high” for stockbrokers. The principle is described correctly, but nobody tells the young lawyers how to apply it. When I started my law practice, I read quite a few of these law practice management books, looking for guidance. All of them caution that young lawyers should work hard, be ethical, serve the client, respect the court, always be on time. Also, charitable and pro bono work is supposedly a good way to network and better oneself as a lawyer. These days, law practice management books added another chapter: strive to have a balanced life, take the time to breathe deeply, maybe even take a yoga lesson.
JWR: What’s wrong with this advice?
PP: Nothing is wrong with this advice. It’s great advice in principle. But from the practical business management perspective, it is useless. These law practice management books describe young lawyers like the iconic “reasonable person” in torts. Remember the “reasonable person” from your tort class? The reasonable person always looks to the right and the left when crossing the street, always puts the car on hand park on steep heel, always wears protective gear. And because the reasonable person behaves reasonably, he mostly avoids the sort of problems that happen to the negligent plaintiff.
Here’s the problem, though. In real law practice, stuff happens to you, no matter how much you conscientiously strive to be “reasonable.” Lawyers who are managing their own practice need to know that. They will have all sorts of trouble while managing their practices, no matter how ethical, hard-working and respectful to the court they turn out to be. Because law practice is a business, and managing a business means ups and downs and getting stiffed and getting baseless grievances filed against you. That all will happen. But that’s OK, because there are wonderful parts to having your own business too. And lawyers who are thinking of opening their own business should be prepared for what a small practice entails, and should learn how to actually make a profit.
We do not need more books teaching lawyers how to be charitable and ethical. We need more books teaching lawyers how to actually avoid bankrupting their practice and, instead, make a living off their law degree. That’s what “Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer?” is about.
JWR: There seem to be a number of Star Wars references in your book, and lawyers are generally associated with the Empire. What gives?
PP: Barney references did not work as well to describe the litigation process.
JWR: Why did you choose divorce work as your primary area of practice?
PP: It’s like asking, “Why did you step in dog poop?”
JWR: You mention in the book that divorce law is a hustle, requiring huge amounts of effort with a low yield in accumulated capital, so why have you stuck with divorce law?
PP: It is true that a multi-million divorce practices are rare. But if you have a good head and willingness to work hard, divorce is a perfect area for starting out, especially for a lawyer who does not have a large team.
JWR: In addition to Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? you published another book in 2016, how do you make the time to write that prolifically?
PP: Two reasons.
Once I stopped getting stiffed all the time, and no longer was forced to work for free, that freed up a lot of time. That’s the first reason.
JWR: And the second reason?
PP: And the second reason is: Portia Porter is a fictional character. That frees up a lot of time too.
JWR: At one point you state that you were afraid the divorce business had made you a doom-and-gloom pessimist. Has it?
PP: Yes. I hope that I’ll live long enough to see this interview in print.
JWR: What’s the singular most poignant piece of wisdom you would share with lawyers on the topic of making sure you get paid for the work you do?
PP: Lawyers, even the young ones, are smart people. But even smart people will make mistakes and get stiffed. As lawyers grow older, they learn from their mistakes, and they get stiffed less often. Of course, that takes a couple of decades. Or you can buy the book and maybe you will learn from my mistakes. That will take only a few hours. It’s your choice. Personally, I never manage to learn from somebody else’s mistakes, but some of my readers are undoubtedly wiser than I am.
I highly recommend that you read Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? The entertainment and educational value are worth the price of admission. But mostly, you don’t want to be caught unawares when you’re clients have read it and deploy new non-payment strategies. Thanks to Portia’s generous spirit, by subscribing to my blog (see below), you can get a 15% discount her books at gumroad.com, or if you’re just into paying full price for things, you can purchase Can You Stiff Your Divorce Lawyer? on Amazon
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