Effectively Dealing with Lawyers

By Scott J. Brook

Most people hate dealing with lawyers. I am a lawyer and I can’t say that I blame them. Please allow me to share some “secrets” of the practice of law and recommendations that might help you and others feel more comfortable in your engagements with attorneys.

1. There are no GUARANTEES.

One of the first things I tell my prospective clients, and constantly remind my clients about, is my inability to guarantee a result. When you are involved in litigation, as I have been for almost 15 years, it is impossible to predict a result with 100% accuracy regardless of how strong your case is. However, I have experienced that many lay people believe in their case and their understanding of the facts so strongly that they are absolutely shocked when the result is not what they expected. One can never guarantee how a Judge will rule regardless of the strength of the witnesses, the facts, and the law.

2. Put it in writing (Confirm you have a clear understanding with your attorney.)

I cannot tell you how often my clients, my staff and I have misunderstood one another. A classic example that I share with others to help them understand how common miscommunication is this: As an appellate attorney, I have dictated briefs that are 40 pages long for my secretary to type. How many errors would you anticipate would be made from that first draft? If you have an excellent secretary, would you anticipate 10, 25, or more? I anticipate over 1000 errors on a 40 page draft!!

It may seem a little bit outlandish. However, when you realize that there are over 100,000 communications, 1000 errors is equivalent to a 99% success rate.

ANTICIPATE MISCOMMUNICATION AND SEEK CLARIFICATION

3. Make sure your expectations are realistic and you are prepared for failure.

I am not saying that you should expect or aspire for your attorney to fail in his or her actions, but I am stating that it is important for any client to anticipate obstacles to their goals in order to minimize frustration. Often, I am dealing with clients who are injured workers or have tremendous issues regarding child support or child custody. I understand that to a great extent my client’s lives are in my hands. I also advise my clients that my firm will make mistakes, the other side will make errors, the Judge will make errors and we must act as a team to rectify those errors and make sure justice is served.

4. Many attorneys are not business-oriented.

Most attorneys have had little, if any, management or business training. Consequently, it is often very hard for an attorney to gauge the costs that may be involved. Additionally, the operation of any size law firm requires a tremendous amount of management expertise to run effectively. There are times when managerial errors are made that may affect your case. So, what can you do? Get written estimates of costs, look for a firm/attorney that understands your cause and goals and directly ask about the depth of business experience your lawyer may possess. You might also want to ask for a mission statement in order to understand the firm’s philosophy of handling your case and as a test to see if the attorney has at least that much business acumen to create one.

5. DO NOT WAIT FOR YOUR ATTORNEY TO RETURN YOUR CALL.

If you find yourself “waiting” for a return call, generally it is better to call again. I tell my clients regularly not to stand on ceremony with me. It is quite common for an attorney to return a call after more than a day or two has passed. If you need information that you cannot wait for, see if someone else can help you, try emailing your lawyer or simply call her again.

6. Attorneys are people, too.

Many people think attorneys have or should have most legal answers. In other words, many clients look to me to solve all of their legal woes on the issues we are faced with and expect me to have all the answers. I don’t and most attorneys are without such clairvoyance, as well. As doctors do, we may render a “diagnosis,” provide you with legal recommendations and maybe even assert a probability of success. However, just as you cannot predict with certainty what will happen tomorrow, neither can we. Consequently, I recommend that you be prepared for the worst possible outcome and make sure your counselor is helping you do that.

I also recommend that you acknowledge that your counselor may have his own issues and be forgiving when you can.

7. Be patient.

THIS IS DIFFICULT! Often so much of your life revolves around your case (or at least appears to) and it can be so hard to be patient. Regardless of how hard it might be, don’t let that serve as an excuse. I am not saying that you should be passively patient as your attorney SHOULD share a substantial portion of your urgency. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that it often takes time to set matters for hearing, to coordinate calendars for all attorneys and the judge involved and for those common communication errors (mentioned earlier) to get rectified.

8. Be gracious where appropriate.

There is nothing as satisfying as having a client compliment me or my staff on the work we do. Furthermore, I am definitely more motivated to work even harder for a client who is so gracious. I have one client that thanks me regularly for helping her achieve custody of her children. As a result, when then are 6 calls to return, she will often receive the first call back.

9. Engage in straight talk with your attorney and make sure its reciprocated.

Too often, clients think they do not need to share everything up front. Too often, attorneys don’t confirm that their client is aware of what it may cost to end up on the losing end of litigation. Do not listen for what you want to hear. Question your attorney whether he is telling you just what you want to hear. Pay close attention to words like “try,” “hopefully,” and “likely.” If your advisor is using similar terminology, be sure to clarify what she is NOT saying. For example, if your attorney says that she is “trying to get the paperwork done by Friday,” do not expect it to be done by Friday. If you want a commitment, get it. Ask the next question: “If not Friday, can you commit to complete it by Monday?” Be straight. Be clear with your goals and deadlines to have them accomplished. Don’t accept words like “try” from your counselor.

I hope this helps you and provides insight for you. If you have any questions or comments, please email me at scottbrook@scottjbrookpa.com.

Posted: Friday, Mar 18, 2005