You may have seen the recent stories about the Probate Courts in Harris County. To describe them as unflattering would be an understatement. The Houston Chronicle is all abuzz over Probate abuse, exorbitant fees, and a good-ole boy network in the Probate system. Now, to be honest, some of the questions were legitimate. When a non-lawyer, non-cpa is allowed to charge 1.38 million dollars and then ask off the case while it sits unresolved, you have to ask some serious questions. However, what the articles are not telling you, and what the Chronicle will never understand is that, ultimately, this new found interest in probate is going to cost you more while giving you less.
In recent articles the Chronicle has insinuated that Probate Judges appoint small circles of friends to most cases and therefore rack up fees for their buddies, while hopefully recouping the difference in campaign contributions. Quite simply, this is ridiculous.
First of all, let’s dispense with the campaign issues right away. I don’t know if you remember the last time you voted, but I’d be willing to bet, that even if you do, you don’t remember voting for Probate Judges. The reason for this is that the Probate Judges are the absolute dead last category for elected officials in Texas. That means that after you voted for Governor, and Lieutenant Governor, and Railroad Commissioner, and the state senate, if you are one of the few that actually fills out the whole ballot, you still have about four pages of offices to scroll through before you get to the probate judges. And lets face it, there are very few, if any, that actually know the candidates past page three, and even less who pay attention to every race by the time they reach the end of the ballot. This is why, for the past decade plus, if you are a Probate Judge in Harris County, and you are running on a Republican ticket, you are an automatic victor.
There have been millions spent in past elections, attempting to inform the public about the qualifications (or lack thereof) of certain judges in these races, and the most they could manage was a few percentage points difference in a 65-35 landslide. The fact is, incumbent Probate Judges are shoe-ins, and no amount of campaign spending is needed to continue that trend. Until we see a shift in ideology at the polls, the little “R” next to their names ensure a landslide victory.
So, with that out of the way we can now focus on the real issue. The question remains, is there a “good old boys” network down at the probate court? This question is really two fold. One, do judges really only appoint a small group of lawyers to a large number of cases. And two, if so, is that a bad thing? The answer is yes, and no. And unfortunately for you, that trend is disappearing quickly.
Despite what you hear in the papers and on the news, the fact that the Court appoints a select group of individuals to preside over their probate cases, is actually a very good thing. Think about this, if you have a complex case in probate court, and it requires that the court appoint a lawyer to handle certain matters during the proceeding, who do you want the Court to appoint in such a situation? Do you want a lawyer with a long track record of excellence in that courtroom, whom the judge is familiar with and trusts, and who knows exactly what they are doing and can do it efficiently? Or do you want a lawyer the Judge doesn’t know, who probably hasn’t even been to probate court in the past year, if ever, and who has basically no understanding of the probate process and who will have to teach himself the ropes at your expense every step of the way? Pretty simple choice if you ask me.
You see, the truth is there are very few probate-only lawyers in Houston. The number of firms who specialize in only handling probate matters can be counted on two hands. And the average probate firm has less than five lawyers total. When you consider that Houston alone has thousands of law firms, some with lawyers numbering in the hundreds, the true picture of just how small the probate community becomes clear.
And it is precisely because of this fact that stories such as the Chronicles latest attacks are so dangerous to you and your potential probate case. You see, when Judges get ancy about who to appoint, they are forced to look outside the realm of probate attorneys. And while many lawyers believe that there is nothing to doing a probate case, when a person is not familiar with the process, he or she can rack up completely unnecessary fees in no time at all, costing the average applicant thousands of dollars without anyone realizing the difference.
What would normally take a probate attorney only a few hours to complete, now takes an unexperienced lawyer five to six hours to complete. Worse still, most probate judges are likely to appoint inexperienced lawyers to simple probate matters because their hourly rate lends itself to the simple work of an uncontested probate matter. However, when these inexperienced lawyers attempt to handle such matters, fees go up because it now takes that person longer to do the same job that a more experienced lawyer was doing in half the time. This costs you money in the long run, and ultimately gives you a much lower quality product in the end.
So please remember that the fact that a Probate Judge appoints a select few to handle matters is not automatically a bad thing.