Do Lawyers Exaggerate the Severity of Legal Problems?

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Lawyers, like all other professionals, sometimes exaggerate the severity of the problems they deal with.  What might be a small legal issue can be blown out of proportion when an attorney explains the matter to a lay person using hyperbolic terms.

Why do some lawyers do this? It seems lawyers engage in this behavior for a few reasons.

1. It encourages people to hire the lawyer.  Here’s a common example.  For most people the probate process in Massachusetts is about the same whether you die with or without a will.  A will does save some money and time during the probate process and there are circumstances in which a will greatly reduces the cost of administering an estate.  But in most cases a will makes little difference.  Nevertheless, almost every estate planning attorney will describe the probate process as a total nightmare that can only be avoided only by employing him or her to draft your will or living trust.

2.  By exaggerating the nature of a client’s problem, the lawyer’s advice seems much more valuable.  For example, a few years ago I advised an elderly couple to take their house out of their name.  The circumstances were such that it was the best way for the couple to qualify for state aid with their nursing home bills and to avoid liens which could result from the aid.  The family knew a tax attorney who told the couple that my advice was “tax suicide” because, in her opinion, it would result in a higher tax rate when they sold the property.  Although the threat of losing the house due to nursing home aid was more substantial than the possibility of paying higher taxes in the future, the couple went with the tax attorney’s advice because it was proposed in more ominous terms.

3.  Finally, lawyers exaggerate the severity of problems to win arguments with other attorneys.  As with the prior example, lawyers often disagree with each other regarding what’s best for a person legally.  Often it’s the lawyer who can create the most fear in the client that wins the argument. 

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