How to Communicate With Your Lawyer

Lawyers are supposed to be masters of communication. That is what they, supposedly, learned in law school. They learn how to write, crisp, clear sentences and are supposed to shape those sentences into cogent, well orchestrated paragraphs which are later supposed to be formed into persuasive arguments.

Lawyers learn oration in law school, so they can present their arguments to a Court and sometimes even to a panel of judges. These are the people who become politicians and stand up on the floor of the political convention waxing on about the future of America. So, how come it is that these same people seem to have so much trouble communicating with you, the client, about your case or matter ? The answer is that, despite all of that wonderful training, most often, no one has taught your lawyer how to communicate with you, the client.

In that event, therefore, it is likely that you that will have to communicate with them. There is often no sense in sitting around waiting for your lawyer to call you with an update or send you an unsolicited status report letter. Chances are, it is not coming. Accordingly, in order for the client to ensure that they communicate with their lawyers, it is often incumbent upon the client to initiate the dialogue.

And, what is the best way to do that you ask ? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Be Persistent.

Often lawyers are separated from their clients by receptionists, paralegals, associates, vacation schedules, court appearances, meetings and the often omnipresent automatic email response which tells you that your lawyer is “out of town” and will be checking email only “intermittently.”

Let’s start with the basics. When you receive the boilerplate email message response from your lawyer, telling you that your lawyer is unavailable, don’t believe it. Your lawyer is seldom, if ever, totally unavailable. Rare is the lawyer who travels to the Antarctic, in the middle of Winter, where there is no cell phone reception and no access to email. Lawyers are not permitted such travel. Law firms generally frown on lawyers who disappear entirely and become unavailable to clients. In reality, your lawyer is likely lying on a beach somewhere, looking at his email and his cell phone, and ignoring you while sipping his or her pina colada.

Your lawyer is likely reading your email even if he or she is not responding. Therefore, when you email your lawyer, demand a timely answer. The only excuse that a lawyer should have for failing to timely respond to emails is – death. And, in that unfortunate event, you should expect a prompt email from his Secretary advising you of his demise and informing you as to who at the firm has inherited your matter.

Get your lawyer’s cell phone number and use it. The best time to do this is at the beginning of the representation before you establish yourself as a pest and he does not want to give it to you. Lawyers should return telephone calls. While lawyers do go to Court, and attend trials, the average Court appearance lasts less than one hour. Demand a return call, therefore, the same day. Rare is the trial that lasts beyond 5:30 p.m. And why is that ? That is because the Judge knows that the lawyer has to return phone calls – your phone call.

Tell the lawyer’s receptionist when you need to hear back from him or her. Use words, if appropriate, like “urgent”, “important” or “time sensitive.” Don’t use words like “emergency” unless you really mean it. Some Courts define the term “emergency” as the imminent threat of death or bodily injury. Your lawyer will like you better if you use that definition and do not refer to emergencies that are really not emergencies.

  1. What to Say to Your Lawyer

Ask your lawyer to speak English to you. Is this really so much to ask after how much you have paid him or her ? Why should you have to have your law dictionary open just to understand what the guy is talking about. If you don’t understand what they are talking about, say so. “Dude, thanks for that 20 minute ‘explanation’ but that actually makes no sense to me.” Some lawyers, the good ones, may actually appreciate that. The bad lawyers will explain it again saying essentially the same incomprehensible thing they said the first time.

Ask about timing. “How long will this take ?” is one of my favorites. The reason that it is one of my favorites is because it almost always takes longer than anticipated. The reason for this is two fold – first, your lawyer likely has other things to do and, second, so does the Judge. You should consider whether you can live with the likely time schedule and how you may feel when the estimated completion date actually passes and the resolution of your matter ends up taking longer than planned. Can you handle the wait ? If the answer is no, you may want to consider alternative forms of Justice such as those recommended by Don Corleone in The Godfather[1]

Ask about the Cost. This is one of your lawyer’s least favorite questions. Why ? Because he or she likely has no real way to answer it. That, of course, does not prevent the average lawyer from trying. The problem with the question of “how much will this cost” is that, in order to answer this question properly you will have to be able to accurately predict what the other side (your adversary) will do. Nonetheless, you, the client, are entitled to an answer to this question, even it if is only an estimate subject to caveats.

Ask for your Bill. Smart clients ask to be billed at least every thirty days and, sometimes, even more often. The bill should tell you what is going on in your case. If it does not, don’t pay it. You should know and understand what you are paying for and why.

Ask for a case plan. Many lawyers really have no idea of how to resolve a case timely and efficiently. No, they did not learn that in law school. What we learned in law school was how to read cases and, then when were done reading cases, we read even more cases, and more cases, until it came time for the Bar Exam and we were then asked to regurgitate the “holdings” of those cases back at some invisible grader, in a far away city, that we never met before and will, in fact, never meet. That is how we become lawyers. Not one word about strategy. Not one class in case planning or billing or how to communicate with you.

The way lawyers learn these important tasks is on the job, when you, the client, ream us. And this, my dear client, is how we learn to be lawyers, not by reading the “holdings’ of piles of cases in law school.

One last thought. Lawyers are people too (I know that may seem hard to believe). We actually work better and harder for people that we like. So, be nice. It may benefit you in the long run.

 

 

 

 

[1] This is called satire and is not intended to be taken seriously so please do not tell my friends and relatives that I recommended that you take a “hit” out on your adversary.

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