Dear Mr. Berko: After three years, we had to dismiss our legal counsel, though we parted on excellent terms. I know you are familiar with our case because that firm unsuccessfully offered you a retainer and ongoing fee to advise it. We have narrowed our choice between two law firms in Chicago, and we are asking whether you are familiar enough with their special expertise to give us a recommendation. How does one make a choice in selecting representation between law firm No. 1 and law firm No. 2, which seem equally competent and competitive in costs? This is very important to us, and we hope you can give us your recommendation.
— SG, Joliet, Ill.
Dear SG: A few times a month, a reader somewhere in the country will ask me to approve of a lawyer or a certified public accountant or a professional in his state. I very seldom do. Frankly, I can’t unless I know the professional intimately and the reader’s problem personally. And in almost every instance, I don’t. I want you to select the best professional available, but I’m unable to make the choice for you. However, read on.
I asked my daughter (she’s one of the good lawyers who live far from Chicago) to check both law firms and their lawyers via Martindale-Hubbell, and neither firm had an edge. Both firms, their partners and their almost-partners are highly regarded in this specialty. She went the extra mile and spoke with a federal judge and a state judge whom she has known for years. They were equally effusive in their praise of both firms. Then she used my query as an excuse to renew her acquaintance with two guys who graduated in her 1996 law school class. She was told that both firms are equal in every way, and surprisingly, the brother of one of them is a partner in law firm No. 2.
While on a recent flight between two far-apart cities, I had an extremely enjoyable and spirited three-hour conversation with a 50-something sincere but preternaturally pompous and arrogant businessman. He was forced to fly commercial because the spare part Butler Aviation had ordered for his jet was late in delivery. He had the scent of expensive cologne and wore a bespoke suit and Rolex, the costs of which would easily support the average American family for nine months. This fellow had no idea that I was delightfully funning him for most of those three hours. If he did have an inkling that I was teasing him, he was a darn good sport about it. If he remembers me, he would remember me as a retired accountant with a small family practice in central Florida. A “retired accountant” is one of the professions I use when I’m not in the mood to visit and find myself stuck near someone who asks, “So what do you do for a living?” Who or what could be less interesting than a retired family accountant in Florida?
I’ve learned, though not soon enough, that the best conversationalist is a good listener and that I can learn a lot by listening. I can also be a brilliant conversationalist when I frequently use the words “how” and “why” in my sentences. Though this guy was the perfect foil, I was able to absorb some of his over-generously shared business acumen. And I recall how he officiously boasted that the deciding factor in his recent choice of competing lawyers (all of whom were equally competent and politically correct) for his “extensive family holdings” was “which law firm employs a warmblooded human being to answer their phone lines.” That was important to him even though he had access to their private lines.
So, SG, all things being equal, I’d also choose the firm that employs a sentient human to answer the phone and take a message rather than a machine that tells you to press 1, hold and press another number. I think my pompous and arrogant seatmate may have helped me answer this question for you. Good luck, and yes, I remember your old firm.
Malcolm Berko addresses questions about stocks.