How would you go about choosing a lawyer? The traditional advice is to ask friends, ask lawyers you know and trust for referrals, and check the publicly available ratings systems. Usually — almost always — those approaches work.
Sometimes, though, choosing a lawyer can be more difficult. Lawyers know more about their experience, capabilities and billing practices than clients or prospective clients know. They (we) tend to have a tactical advantage over their (our) clients.
A recent disciplinary case out of Kansas highlighted how the information imbalance can work to the client’s disadvantage. Spoiler alert: a Kansas City lawyer was suspended from the practice of law for six months after charging an elderly couple over $27,000 for estate planning. But the point we want to emphasize is that it would have been hard to see that coming from the publicly available information.
David Crandall’s practice
The lawyer in question is named David Crandall. He is licensed in Kansas, Missouri, and California (though his California license is inactive). He was suspended from practice in both Kansas and Missouri (as we describe below), but appears to be back in practice again.
But suppose for a moment that you were looking for an estate planning lawyer in the Kansas City area, and that you had run across Mr. Crandall’s name. How might you assess the available information in choosing a lawyer?
You might look on the internet. If you plug his name into a search engine, you would probably be directed to Avvo, a well-known online lawyer review site. When we did that, Mr. Crandall could boast a score of 10.0 out of 10.0 (update: by early 2020 his Avvo score had dropped to 6.2). He had glowing reviews from a number of clients, and another handful of positive professional reviews from fellow attorneys.
Sprinkled through those reviews and Mr. Crandall’s own descriptions you might see two recurrent threads. One indicates that Mr. Crandall is devoutly religious. The other indicates that he is a long-time member of something called the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys. Those both sound like positive indications.
How Mr. Crandall got in trouble
Actually, the estate planning clients involved in Mr. Crandall’s disciplinary matter didn’t go looking for him at all. He went looking for them, in a manner of speaking.
Mr. Crandall had worked at a small law firm in Kansas City for a decade. He left that firm in 2009, after having been made a partner three years earlier.
While at his prior firm, Mr. Crandall prepared estate planning documents for an elderly couple. He charged them $900 for the work in 2007.
A year later, Mr. Crandall sent his former clients a 15-page letter, explaining that he had changed his estate planning practices. He had joined the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys, he wrote, and he had learned a much better approach to suggest. he invited his clients to attend a free seminar to learn more.
Although nothing came of that first re-contact, Mr. Crandall’s clients did call him again a few years later. By this time, both were in their late 80s, and the wife’s advancing dementia had made her unable to participate; the husband signed all documents on behalf of his wife. Presumably, he used the power of attorney Mr. Crandall had prepared for the couple in his earlier representation.
The retainer agreement signed by the husband was in three parts. None of them spelled out precisely how much the representation might cost. Mr. Crandall then got busy preparing documents for the couple.
The clients ended up signing two separate trusts. One was revocable, and was 130 pages long. The other, shorter, trust was irrevocable and was intended to help the couple become eligible to receive Veteran’s benefits.
Did we mention how wealthy Mr. Crandall’s clients were? They had less than $500,000 in assets. Their legal fees were over $27,000.
Mr. Crandall’s license gets suspended
Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court suspended Mr. Crandall from practicing law for six months. They focused on the estate planning fees we’ve described here. Mr. Crandall had apparently calculated his fees as approximately the cost of five months’ nursing home care for the wife; he insisted that his complicated trust planning would have saved her more than that in care costs.
Though the Supreme Court focused mostly on the estate planning case, there was also a probate case involved in Mr. Crandall’s discipline. In that case he had represented the personal representative of an estate for over seven yars. During that time, he did little or nothing to resolve the legal issues in the small probate — it turned out to be worth about $35,000 — but his fee was over $16,000. The probate court had already reduced his approved fee to a little more than $3,000. Matter of Crandall, November 30, 2018.
Choosing a lawyer
What does Mr. Crandall’s story tell you about choosing a lawyer? Several things:
- Be careful about relying on on-line reviews. It is not that they are wrong, or unreliable — they are mostly helpful. But look in multiple places, and favor those where the subject of the review has less ability to manipulate the ratings. If you were to look up Mr. Crandall in the more widely respected Martindale.com rating, for example, you might be puzzled to see that he had no rating at all. That is not disqualifying, but it might make you ask follow-up questions.
- At the same time, be careful about relying on negative reviews. Smoke might just be smoke.
- Ask people you actually know. Be less willing to accept descriptions by people willing to post online, but not available for you to interview.
- Insist that your lawyer tell you how much the services are going to cost. They might not be able to give you a precise number, but they ought to be able to give you a pretty close range. At Fleming & Curti, PLC, we do almost all of our estate planning work on a flat-fee basis. We’ll tell you the exact cost in advance, before you ask us to start drafting. In fact, we’ll give you a pretty good idea before you even make your initial appointment.
Maybe you’d like to see Mr. Crandall defend his billing practices. Watch closely to see if you would have been able to figure out how much he would have charged you for estate planning.