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Hiring a lawyer

In a recent topic ( http://discuss.fogcreek.com/joelonsoftware/default.asp?cmd=show&ixPost=66781 ) the lawyer issue came up, over where to get legal advice and the competence of some lawyers.

How do you find a good lawyer? As mentioned in that thread, I've seen situations where the supposedly expert lawyer generated results indicative (at least from a distance) more of a desire to maximize billable hours, as opposed to maximize customer satisfaction or even provide advice appropriate to the specific circumstances.

Besides going for referals from others, are there good interview questions? I'm thinking something along the lines of "what do you think of the Apache license?" should tell you a few things: do they know about a common open-source license, or how to ask more details about it; what they think it means for you to use open source software; how they express themselves about IP issues.

Of course this is just one area you might need to engage someone in, but it's quite likely you'd have a different person working on contract disputes vs. preemptively determining what you can and cannot do with externally sourced software.

mb
Thursday, August 28, 2003

mb, ask your professional association or colleagues for a recommendation. The answer is that it is very hard to find knowledgeable lawyers in these matters.

Even the ones who claim to have such knowledge, and write things in magazines, oftne don't really understand the important issues. You can waste a lot of money on lawyers and still acheive nothing.

wig
Thursday, August 28, 2003

I happen to be an attorney, although I'm not practicing at the moment.  To be honest, the only good way is through word-of-mouth.  That's the way lawyers do it themselves when they need an attorney -- at the law firm I used to work at, there would often be emails from one attorney to the others asking, "can someone recommend a good attorney to represent me regarding [my divorce/my car accident/etc.]" 

I wouldn't put too much stock into an attorney's personal feelings about open source; some of the best attorneys are those who've worked on both sides of an agrument -- prosecutors who become criminal defense attorneys, for example.  If they're capable, they must be able to put your interests above their own personal beliefs.  Also, although it's totally fair to expect them to be knowledgeable about their field (e.g, software licensing), a question like "what do you think of the Apache license?" might be a bit too specific.

Robert Jacobson
Thursday, August 28, 2003

Perhaps my 'interview' question was poorly worded--it's now what they think of it personally, but how it affects people on all sides legally. And if they don't know what it is, they should be able to ask and discuss a similar license if they've dealt with any before.

Seems like this is like any other professional--a doctor, or even a computer consultant. Word of mouth is the only reliable option.

Part of the reason I'm asking is all the IANAL responses and the 'ask a lawyer' responses here and on other forums, when others point out that a lawyer will often say the exact same thing at xxx the price. Same with doctors--on medical related forums, people will respond 'ask a doctor' and others will respond 'my doctor said X, which turns out to be the opposite of the current understood truth'. Similarly I'm helping some computer professionals who work for a well-known consulting firm; they probably wear nice suits and are well paid, but the level of ignorance is astounding.

Will there ever be a solution?

mb
Thursday, August 28, 2003

I work with the company lawyers quite a bit, and I'm pretty impressed with them, largely for two reasons.  1) They explain things to me like I'm able to learn something of the law myself, and understand what they're doing, and make competent decisions about legal strategy.  2) They very often say things like "well, we can do that, but it's expensive, and doesn't have great odds of success, and there are better, cheaper ways to solve these problems."  In other words, they're thinking from my perspective as someone who's paying them for their services, who would naturally want to minimize those expenses, not win big cases or stroke our company ego.  They're all about "these are business problems with a legal angle, and a good solution is a good business solution first."

If you get someone who makes you feel that way, I'd say you've found a good lawyer.  Sometimes it means fighting; sometimes it means caving in.  The bottom line is always financial, not moral, where business law is concerned.

Justin Johnson
Friday, August 29, 2003

It's true that lawyers often seem like people who will tell you the same thing that non-lawyers will tell you, but at a steep hourly rate.  That's a very superficial comparison, and not really true.  The real value of a good lawyer comes over time, in a long history of good advice and lessons learned.

Justin Johnson
Friday, August 29, 2003

I'd agree that the best way is by word-of-mouth, and the best word-of-mouth is probably from other lawyers.  So if you have any lawyer friends who you won't use because they don't know anything about software development, you might ask them for a reference to a good lawyer you can use.

I agree with this statement:
"It's true that lawyers often seem like people who will tell you the same thing that non-lawyers will tell you, but at a steep hourly rate. "

The thing is, there will be a deep understanding behind the lawyer's advice that's not there for advice you might get from even a savvy non-lawyer.  This is similar to the distinction commonly made between "opinion" and "knowledge".  A non-lawyer might give you advice that's accurate, but without fully understanding all the factors that make it accurate it is merely an "opinion".  The lawyer, on the other hand, knows why the advice is accurate, the advice is based on "knowledge".  This is somewhat of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

So I would say, yes, the advice from a lawyer may often coincide with that of a smart non-lawyer, or with your own.  But unless you have "knowledge" of all the many underlying factors that can influence things, and of the different ways they might influence things and the probability that they might influence things, you'd be foolish to think that the lawyer's advice is not more valuable.  You can place more reliance on it; the lawyer will be far more likely to give accurate advice. 

Unless you want to gamble with things, I would go to a lawyer for advice regarding any legal issues you consider important.  There's obviously a cost-effectiveness issue there, since you aren't going to want to pay a lawyer to give you advice regarding every little issue you come up with.  But for the big ones, I wouldn't chance it.

All of that, of course, depends on your having found a good lawyer in the first place.  As Robert said, ask around.

Herbert Sitz
Friday, August 29, 2003

So it seems the best thing is to find a long term counselor, who can then refer you to others.

Just like any other profession.

The key is getting in to the 'good' people to start with. And that can be hard to do.

Thankfully I don't need someone myself (which is why this discussion is abstract), and could probably start with the lawyers my company deals with.

mb
Friday, August 29, 2003

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