Better (Not) Call Saul

One of the aims of the Sandia Family Law blog is to present our readers with a better understanding of the legal process. Today’s bLAWg will delve into mind of the average attorney, with an emphasis on those of us who practice family law as a specialty. To put it another way, we want to establish a better understanding that attorneys are real human beings who expend a great deal of energy and deliberation on case work. Working towards fulfilling this aim, I wanted to spend some time today addressing some of the established negative clichés and misconceptions concerning practitioners of the legal profession.

Ambulance chasers. Shysters. Hucksters. What’s the difference between a vampire and a lawyer? – The vampire stops sucking your blood out once you’re dead. What do you call ten thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? – A good start. I assure you that your average attorney has heard every single lawyer joke and critical epithet possible by the time he or she has finished law school and has developed a sufficiently thick skin about it (and which we also find useful as extra protection against wooden stakes and silver bullets). Popular movies and television are of course rife with characters representing both the legal profession as well as the worst examples of human and professional decency. One particular attorney character from television that comes to mind is Saul Goodman from AMC’s immensely popular show Breaking Bad.

For those unfamiliar with it, Breaking Bad (which is both filmed and set entirely in Albuquerque) is about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who, in stark contrast to his mild and quiet mannerisms, lives a secret life as a high-volume manufacturer and distributor of methamphetamine. Saul Goodman is a crooked-up-to-his-eyeballs attorney who helps Walter with laundering his drug money in addition to other unscrupulous tasks such as hiring hitmen, blackmail, ticket fixing and environmental inspection fraud.

Apart from his activities as a criminal lawyer (i.e. – he is both a criminal and a lawyer), the character of Saul Goodman embodies all of the most cringe-worthy qualification for running a legitimate legal practice. His office is in what appears to be a dilapidated strip mall which one easily imagines is sandwiched between a bail bondsman and a payday loan outfit. He panders to both the most clueless and litigious elements of society with a gimmicky mantra that one had “Better call Saul!” By way of viral advertising for the show Breaking Bad, “Saul Goodman” even has an official website which has to be seen to be believed as it exemplifies everything terrible about certain attorneys (as well as being a great example of how not to design a website).

Saul is purposely a caricature of a bad lawyer. And caricatures, by definition, draw attention to notable traits through exaggeration of said traits. Fortunately for all involved, it is unlikely that one will ever retain the services of an attorney as deeply involved in criminal undertakings as Saul Goodman. But even on the legitimate side of his legal practice, Saul demonstrates certain approaches to his work of which a prospective client should be aware.

First, avoid an attorney who encourages deceit, if not outright dishonesty, on the part of his clients. The attorney-client relationship is one predicated upon establishing trust between one another, and that same consideration needs to be extended to opposing parties in the interest of arriving at a resolution which accounts for both fairness and justice. At Sandia Family Law we always encourage our clients to be forthright and never dishonest with opposing counsel in the course of depositions or discovery. And we would certainly never encourage a client to be anything less than truthful in court. There is nothing to be gained in the long term over the utterance in court of either a “little white lie” or an outright falsehood. In the context of family law, remember that in most instances you will be in court opposite a former spouse who still retains a deep, intimate knowledge of both your shared history of finances as well as parenting style. That person will generally know if you’re being deceitful about something and this will be used against you later.

Also, at the risk of sounding overtly dramatic, the courts are regarded by most in the legal profession as something of a sacred institution in our society, and that regard should be held by the general public as well. The ultimate purpose of the courts is to bring about resolution to disputes which reflect a sense of justice and fairness. This can only be accomplished through wholly truthful dealings from all sides involved in any dispute. To believe one can achieve fairness through the use of dishonest means is to miss the point of fairness entirely. Any attorney who willfully asks clients to omit, or twist, relevant facts in a case is one who demeans the entire system.

You would also be wise to avoid any attorney who promotes litigation over mediation as a preferred course of action. Bringing any case in to a courtroom places the stakes, whatever they may be, in to a greater dimension of absolutism, meaning you may win it all, or you may win nothing at all. An attorney whose first inclination is to take all matters before a judge is playing fast and loose with your assets, visitation times, etc. As the famous tactician Sun Tzu observed, “He will triumph, who knows when to fight, and when not to fight.” Litigation should never be undertaken without first performing a cost-benefit analysis around the following consideration: Do the potential benefits of a litigation outcome outweigh the cost of litigation itself?

The last type of attorney to steer clear of is one who emphasizes a “win” outcome. Believe it or not, this type of thinking is especially prevalent in family law cases, and its achievement is generally sought through the needless harassing or defaming of opposing parties. A client who believes he or she has been wronged understandably wants an attorney who feels the exact same degree of indignation over said wrongdoing. But, realistically speaking, the absence of direct experience, coupled with a need for professional detachment, prevents an attorney from genuinely rising (or sinking) to that same level of impassioned outrage. Regardless of the spitefulness of an embittered client, it should be noted that, in the long term, attacking or humiliating the other side of a family law dispute has no winners, particularly when children are concerned. Barring extraordinary circumstances of criminal conduct or abuse, the other party is never going to be completely removed from the presence of one’s life or that of one’s children. It should also be said, with respect to long-term thinking, that children have especially long memories. When harsh tactics have been employed, for example, to reduce an opposing party’s holiday visitation time with school-aged children, bear in mind that those children will eventually mature into thoughtful young adults who still love both their parents and will consequently have hard questions for you regarding the scorched-earth methods used back then to get you that extra two days of visitation over Christmas break. Meanwhile, the attorney who suggested this approach has long since closed your case file and moved on to other things, unconcerned with the lingering damage done to your family dynamics.

Saul Goodman and those of his ilk certainly make for entertaining television. But they also reinforce certain preconceptions about attorneys which are profoundly damaging to a realistic understanding of what an actual attorney is capable of doing within the strictures of professional ethics and the law itself. If your attorney manifests any of the traits we’ve discussed, his potential to do harm in his handling of your family law case greatly outweighs his ability to do any good, and you should seek alternate counsel as soon as possible.

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