May 5, 2020

Allowable Toleranceslaw can learn a lot from the trades

Lawyers: Watch this video about allowable tolerances in frame carpentry.

One of the greatest boons to my practice of the last few years has been getting involved in motorcycle mechanics and restoration. Through that hobby, I’ve been exposed to all kinds of materials, skills, practices, and tradespeople in safety-critical systems. I am by no means their peer for a few years of turning wrenches in a home garage. But their vocabulary—spoken and practiced—has rubbed off on me a bit. My world is so much richer for it.

The concept of “allowance tolerance” is a case in point. Allowable tolerances aren’t just a matter of what you can get away with. Allowable tolerances are a matter of what people can afford. They determine, in large part, whether good work is accessible. They are, in our parlance, an access to justice issue.

A skilled worker who can do every part of a job to zero tolerance, dead-on, is a wonder. But unless they can also do less than that, and decide when to do less, they’re at best a luxury talent for the rich and obsessive, dependents of patronage. Knowledge of allowable tolerances, and the ability to work from fine to rough, makes the skill, care, and wisdom of practiced professionals affordable to honest, hardworking people who don’t fetishize the process. If those professions exist to serve the community, and their service is metered by time and money, efficiency is integral to their duty. It’s part of what they’ve promised to society, in exchange for their privileges.

Translation to contract drafting work is obvious, even trite. Which puts the lie to the story we tell our clients, and sometimes tell ourselves, of legal perfection, faultless drafting, and the lofty state of our art. The ghost of that hubris haunts our profession, and feeds the grim perception that casts a social shadow over our profession. When we place our own self-image and insecurities above the needs, budgets, and tolerances of our clients, we make ourselves a privilege of wealth. We exclude those in need who won’t pay a surcharge for our egos.

I am also guilty. If I were less expensive, and my form of practice less tailored to business and high-dollar needs, I wouldn’t have to do so much pro bono. My work being what it is, the only way to reach a balance is by mixing both extremes. I joke that I’m either expensive or free, but I’m not really joking.

Some of that’s inherent in what I do, but some of it is not. I am, to no small degree, self-enabling.

I have a lot to learn about allowable tolerances.

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