10 Tips for Obtaining Better Results from Your Lawyer

Here are ten things you can do to help us (or any lawyer) serve you better, and perhaps obtain better results for you.

1) Tell the truth.

Always. Tell the truth to us, and to everyone else. The first reason you must do this is the idealistic reason: You should tell the truth because it is the right thing to do. Truth is the foundation of our system, and we all, lawyer and client alike, rely on the system and on the truth that underlies it. However, if in this cynical age you would like a less idealistic reason to always tell the truth, we can provide you with one: You must tell the trust because it also is the only thing you practically can do. If you lie, it will be discovered, and you will have damaged your case or cause beyond repair. We have seen it, and it always happens that way. You simply cannot game or beat the system, and if you think you can, then you and we need to have a serious talk, or better yet, perhaps it is time to refer you to other lawyers.

2) Tell us everything.

The complete story. We cannot help you unless we fully understand the situation, and that often includes a lot more detail than you might think it would. You also have to give us everything, including the difficult, unfavorable, or unflattering aspects. It does not harm you to be straight with us even about crimes that may have been committed in the past, whether or not they are known or have been detected. All your communications with us are confidential and, unless you threaten to harm someone or commit a crime in the future, are covered by the “attorney-client privilege,” which means that no one can force us to reveal your secrets.

3) Be willing to get involved.

A legal matter is not a set-it-and-forget-it situation. We will do everything we can to relieve you of as much of the stress and legwork as possible, but there is information and assistance that we simply must get from you. There are things you know about the situation and resources you can draw upon that we either cannot duplicate or can duplicate only at much larger expense to you. Sometimes it’s as simple as a quick consultative telephone call. There are also legal or court functions such as settlement mediations, depositions and certain court hearings that you simply must be present for. We will always try to minimize the impact on your schedule and give you as much notice as possible of these. However, you will always be expected to work with us as a team.

4) Understand your zone of authority and also ours.

This is a refinement on our suggestion above to get involved. There is an optimal way to be involved. A certain, particular “division of labor” should occur between lawyers and clients in order for them to work together effectively and efficiently. This is usually expressed as the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the larger issue of what you want to have happen, and these decisions are for you. Tactics are how those larger goals are to be accomplished, and that generally falls to us (although we will often discuss our tactics with you as well). Maintaining this division of labor works both ways. First, we ask that you not attempt to push off on us decisions that really belong to you. This includes business decisions and the main goals that you wish to pursue. We are happy to consult with you on all of these, but you must keep in mind that the final decision will always be up to you.

As well, whether in or out of litigation so much of our professional relationship hinges on dealing with containment and allocation of risks of various types. We will detail the level and kinds of risks you may encounter as we proceed, and quantify them for you as best we can. Yet, one decision we can never make for you regards how much risk you wish to take. Second, we ask that you respect our ability to take care of the detail decisions. Many of those involve technicalities in the law, and very often what appears to be going on in a legal matter is not what is really going on. We are always happy to discuss these more technical details with you, but we seek your trust that we can handle the smaller, more technical details in the correct way.

5) Read your bill.

Yes, that’s right, we do indeed want you to read and inspect the monthly invoices we send you. We expect you to pay them, but we prefer that you read them first. This is a part of your being involved in your case. It is also part of maintaining the best, closest relationship between you and us. Miscommunication, mistrust, and resentment do not help you or us. Reading your bill keeps you up on the financial arrangements between you and us, a very important aspect of our professional relationship.

6) Don’t ask us to be shady.

Do not ask us to lie or to break the law. We just won’t. And if you ask us repeatedly to do these kinds of things, it will lead to the end of our professional relationship with you. There are other proprieties to be observed as well. For instance, as you know from item 1 above, we will always insist on your telling the truth. Always. It has to be played square and by the book. With those rules on the table, there is nothing wrong with asking for an aggressive stance in the appropriate situation. You also may not always be clear on what is proper and what is not. There is nothing wrong with asking whether something is okay or not. Within the permissible bounds, we will seek every advantage for you, as long as we can stay on the right side of the line.

7) Listen to what we are saying.

Sometimes it is our duty to give you bad news, or news you generally just don’t want to hear. We understand this, and we pride ourselves on being able to work patiently with clients when the topic is difficult or the lines of communication are strained. Still, the ultimate link in getting the information over to you is your willingness to receive it. News and information that is unpleasant is often just as important, or more important, to hear and understand than is the good news. If we are talking to you about it, there is a reason we need you to have and understand this information. We will try never to waste your time, so when we take up a point with you, it means we think it is something you should have in your head to be thinking about. Sometimes the situation is simply bad and must be faced. Whatever the situation, good or bad, you will fare better with it if you allow us to arm you with all the facts and factors you must know. When we counsel you about various options you may wish to pursue, it is rare that we would demand you choose a particular one. The choice will be open to you. However, it is still important that you listen carefully to all the options we lay out, and strive to understand each of them, so you that you can make the best informed choice possible.

8) Be aware when emotion may be getting in the way.

The consideration of emotion influences some of the other items on this list. Sometimes it will involve items coming from us such as information, as noted in the point just above, on listening to what we are telling you. Sometimes it may involve items coming from you to us, as with the items above regarding your staying involved, and not asking us to do something improper. All perception and decision making can be affected and even warped by emotion. Your legal matter may be a difficult and emotional one, and we understand that. If you can stay vigilant for the effects of emotion coming into the legal relationship, that will help to keep your thinking straight, keep the lines of communication open, and allow your decisions to be the best they can be.

9) Use us for what we do best, and use us carefully and sparingly.

For most of our matters we charge by the hour, and we do not apologize for that. As Abraham Lincoln said, “time is a lawyer’s stock in trade.” The upshot of this is that all the time we spend performing legal services for you, and that includes the time we spend consulting with you, such as time we spend on the telephone discussing your case with you, costs you. Sometimes we find a client will detain us beyond the time necessary to consult on their case because the client simply wants to vent to us. We understand the natural desire to do this, and we are natural objects for this, being as close as we are to your case and your concerns. However, the clock is running, and we make rather expensive confidants or therapists.

There is of course a place for confidants and therapists, and we actually encourage you to lean on others, including professionals, during the stressful period that comes from a loved one’s passing, or during the emotional gauntlet that litigation can create. We have referrals available to emotional support professionals that we work with, and we may encourage (or occasionally even require) you to take advantage of these other resources; don’t be shy about asking. There are also things we do better and more efficiently than others. Generally tasks that are farther away from being strictly legal services are better handled by others. And even within the law there are areas in which we will refer you to other lawyers, sometimes because we don’t feel we can provide high quality services in that area, and sometimes because other practitioners can perform similar services at lower cost to you.

10) On the other hand, use us fully.

Despite what we just told you, it actually pays to use us (or any other lawyers to whom we may refer you) fully. We have seen far too often the tragedy of “penny wise, pound foolish.” For instance, the story of the person who skimps on professional advice while attempting complex estate planning is heartbreaking in its repeated disastrous consequences for that person’s heirs and intended beneficiaries. Please let us be clear: This last example is not a plug for our own services, because generally we do not even practice in the estate planning area anyway. It is instead a plea for you to spend a few dollars to have a professional review and pass on your situation and at least let you know if and when you might benefit from some help. Further, the à la carte approach, where we are brought in piecemeal for only parts of a larger problem, is actually far less efficient and cost-efficient in the long run, as opposed to working with us up front to help us carry through for you with a comprehensive and sensible larger plan. Let us be on your team. Trust us and use us fully for what we do best. This is what will serve you in the long run.