What to Do Before You Call for a Legal Consultation
Before I give you the wrong impression–that I’m just ranting–let me start by saying that I do a lot of pro bono work. Last year, I won an award from the Tennessee Supreme Court for the amount of pro bono work I do. I carefully choose the clients to whom I offer pro bono or reduced-rate legal services, and they’re almost always veteran entrepreneurs. I am selective when offering pro bono or reduced-rate legal services, because, in order to make them available to those who most need and deserve them, I cannot offer pro bono legal services to everyone.
A law firm, after all, is a business, not a charity.
I am writing this post, again, not to rant, but to give you sound advice about how to start off on the right foot with your lawyer. Ultimately, this advice is intended to help you get more value out of the attorney-client relationship. I write every word of this post, no matter how “ranty” it may sound, with the intention of helping you help yourself. Once you’ve mentally initialed this paragraph, please feel free to read the rest of this article.
The thing that infuriates me the most, as a lawyer, is feeling like someone has wasted my time. If someone calls me for legal advice and gives me the impression they have neither the (1) intention nor the (2) means of hiring me, I quickly get agitated, because, with their words and actions, they are essentially telling me that my time is worthless.
Maybe people just don’t realize or appreciate the enormous expense involved in becoming a lawyer, operating a legal practice, and trying to responsibly and ethically provide legal services to the public. Allow me to assure you, even if you have received pro bono legal services in the past, legal services are not free, even if they are provided free-at-the-point-of-delivery. They cost something to someone. Often, that someone is the lawyer providing them, and you are not entitled to anyone else’s time or work product, unless you have agreed with that person to pay them a fair, agreeable fee for it.
The first expectation you should always have, when calling a lawyer, is that you should be expected to pay for the legal advice you receive. In fact, when you call your lawyer, if you expect to receive pro bono legal services, the first words out of your mouth, after, “Hello, my name is [your name]. How are you, today,”–and after giving the person a polite amount of time to respond–should be, “I’m looking for someone to help me with a pro bono legal matter. Does your firm handle pro bono work, and, if so, are you accepting new pro bono clients?”
Do not launch right into your long, detailed story! If you start wasting an attorney’s time right away, without any regard for the value of their time, they’re going to be annoyed, and rightfully so. You should expect nothing else. You should also expect to receive a, “No,” in reply to the above question, and you should expect a referral to the local Legal Aid Society. This is the organization you probably should have called in the first place to ask for pro bono legal services.
If you are reasonably expecting to pay for legal advice, like you should, you should start your conversation with your attorney by asking what is involved in hiring the attorney; whether or not there is a fee for the initial consultation; and, if there is a fee, what the amount of the fee for the consultation is.
By showing a lawyer that you respect their time and skill, and that you recognize that those things are valuable, you make a great first impression with the lawyer. Remember, incentives matter. Give your lawyer an incentive to care about your legal issue by establishing a bond of mutual respect from the first time you interact with him or her.
Consider Your Contact Method
Unless you contact your lawyer through their website or have some kind of previous interaction or relationship with them (e.g. from networking, through LinkedIn, or some other kind of personal connection), you should reasonably expect your lawyer to be skeptical about who you are, the details of your case, etc., etc., because lawyers have to deal with a lot of scams–especially e-mail and trust account scams. It’s a huge problem in the legal industry.
So, it’s a good idea to call your lawyer’s office, schedule a call, or otherwise let the lawyer know that you’re going to be following-up the phone call with an e-mail. Text messaging is almost always the worst way to communicate with your lawyer. Whenever you speak with, or write to, your lawyer (or their staff), always provide your name and contact information to make it easier for the lawyer to identify you, your legal matter, and how to most efficiently and effectively respond to you. Clear communication is your responsibility just as much as it is your lawyer’s responsibility.
When you’re sending an e-mail, for the first time, to a lawyer you want to hire, you should indicate how you came across the lawyer’s contact information. You should indicate whether you were referred to the lawyer by another person; whether you saw some marketing material; whether you found them in a directory, such as FindLaw; or whether you visited their website. If I know how a client has come across my information, I am less likely to think the person contacting me is part of a scam.
Give the lawyer some time to call or e-mail you back. Sometimes we’re in court, in a meeting, dealing with a client matter, performing focused work (such as legal research or legal writing), or managing our staff. Lawyers really are very busy people; there is a lot of time-intensive work that goes into nearly everything a lawyer does, because our work is very detail-oriented, precise, and complex. So, give your lawyer a reasonable amount of time to return your calls and e-mails; this can be as much as 48 hours, depending on the lawyer, his or her case load, and his or her staff.
Remember, lawyers are people, too. They know a lot, but not everything. You need to ask yourself, “What does this person need from me,” and, if you don’t know, ask the lawyer, “What do you need from me,” in order to get what you need from the lawyer (i.e. legal services). When you take a moment to consider the lawyer’s position, relative to yours, they should recognize the mutual respect you are showing them, and show you the same kind of respect and consideration in return, making it far more likely that the attorney-client relationship will get off to a good start.
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