By Gary Blankenship
“Lawyers are not trinket-makers, or assembly line operators; they are professionals schooled and trained in exercising reasoned judgment. Using a widget-based system to evaluate lawyers is nonsense. Moreover, any evaluation system that is more directed to undercutting professionalism is a failed system.”
That’s George Waas, a recently retired longtime government lawyer reflecting on his experiences (which included private as well as public practice) and changes he saw in the managing of attorneys working for state government.
Waas, who was a reporter before he became a lawyer, filled some of the hours since his retirement in 2010 at the keyboard, drafting books instead of legal memos. The first effort is Retired . . . And Loving It, published earlier this year.
It’s not exactly an autobiography. As Waas explains in the introduction, it’s an explanation he wants to leave for his children and grandchildren of who he is, what he did, and his ruminations about various topics and issues, from the public issues bantered in current headlines to musings about his own health.
The book covers everything from his family, his early life, his views about various issues, personal notes, and other topics, but what is likely to interest lawyers most are his recollections and reflections about his years as a government lawyer. Waas had a varied career, working for the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, two years at The Florida Bar in its legal education programs, a stint in private practice, working for the Department of State on elections, and finally for the Attorney General in the Programs Bureau of the Department of General Civil Litigation, where he spent his final 23 years in public employment.
“The bureau is called state programs because it was the catchall for cases that didn’t fit into any other bureau,” Waas said.
“I was fortunate enough to have a wide variety of cases, and I was able to argue cases at the highest level of state and federal courts,” Waas said.
Those cases included legal work on the 1992 legislative reapportionment plan, peripheral work on the disputed 2000 presidential election, enforcing Son of Sam profiteering laws against the “girlfriend” of notorious murderer Danny Rolling, defending the state in a lawsuit that sought to impose single member districts for trial court judges, and handling a challenge to the state law requiring grand jury witnesses to keep silent about their testimony. The latter is one he argued at the U.S. Supreme Court.
For those considering a public service career, he said, “You’ll be given responsibility that you’ll ordinarily not get in the private sector. In the private sector, if you go in a large law firm, they’re going to want to mold you into their approach of practice.
“With government, you’re seeking a high purpose. You’re working for the people and you’re doing the people’s work. . . . You’re talking about a commitment and what you want to do with your life with the legal education you have.”
In the book, Waas addressed the perception that government lawyers are not as good as those who choose to go into private practice, which also ties into his view about managing attorneys on the public payroll.
He noted that former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, his first boss at the agency, continually promoted the status of government lawyers, pushed the Bar to create the Government Lawyer Section (of which Butterworth was the first chair), and pushed for higher salaries and incentives. Butterworth also told his lawyers he would happily compare them to any private law firm.
In 2007, a new evaluation system was begun in which lawyers were expected to report billable hours, with the goal of reporting 1,800 annually (based on standards in private law firms). Then, when representing another agency, they were expected to notify and consult that agency’s general counsel on every court filing, even on routine matters, Waas said.
The difficulty, Waas said, was that the billable hour standard doesn’t take into account that one lawyer may be able to accomplish in 1,400 hours what another does in 1,800 hours. And such a pure numbers system does not evaluate the quality of work or the outcome achieved by the lawyer.
“I think there was a tendency to try to quantify the practice of law. You can’t do that,” Waas said in an interview. “The legal profession is a judgment-driven profession. “Pushing the number of billable hours is not a proper way of gauging performance. I think you gauge performance the difficult way, by asking judges, by asking opposing counsel.”
Waas said the writing bug hit hard after he left the state. Besides Retired . . . and Loving It, he has turned out two short fictional works, “The Source” and “The Great American Short Story.”
For now, he said he’s done writing and hopes to do some of the travel he and his wife had planned.
Waas’ books are available through his publisher, AuthorHouse Publishing Company. Go to www.authorhouse.com and search under “Waas.” The books are also available online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.