From the web: How to Talk to a Lawyer (and When You Need One)
How to Talk to a Lawyer (and When You Need One)
Regardless of what you think about lawyers, when you need one, they're your best friend. A good lawyer works with you, helps you understand the situation, and guides you to the best possible result. To do that, they need a client they can work with. Here's how to be just that.
Finding a good laywer is tricky, but we've shown you how to do that before. Once you do, you have a whole new series of challenges. You have to get them up to speed, and maintain a relationship with your lawyer that's mutually beneficial. That can be difficult, especially considering how stressful legal matters can be.
We sat down with a few experts, including a lawyer, to talk about when you should consult with a lawyer (even if you think you might not need to), what you should bring to the table, and what a lawyer needs from you in order to best represent you and your interests.
When You Need a Lawyer (Even If You Don't Think So)
You may think the only times you need a lawyer's help are if you're being sued or you need to sue someone, but that's not the case. Sometimes a lawyer's expertise can also come in handy if you're trying to protect your rights, or wrangle insurance or health care claims, for example. Elizabeth Unrath, a Labor & Employment Law Attorney, explains some of the other situations:
Some telltale signs you need to engage [a lawyer] are when someone is threatening to sue you (like a neighbor or a business contact), when you're being asked to sign something where you are giving up your rights or accepting money (other than an iTunes agreement), when you receive something official in the mail from a law office or court, or when you want to change the terms of something that is already written down (like a contract to do business, or the terms of a custody agreement, etc).
For example, if you're being mistreated at work and want to know what your rights are, or you've been a victim of fraud or theft, speaking to a lawyer is a good idea even if nothing comes of it. Similarly, consult with a lawyer if you have a brilliant idea and want to make sure it's not stolen, or want to start your own business. A good one can help you get started on the right foot (or deal with rival companies.)
Raad Ahmed, CEO and Founder of LawTrades, a site that helps people find a lawyer and get legal advice, explained that earlier is better if you think you need a lawyer, even if your case doesn't go to court. If you've been charged with a crime, getting a lawyer as soon as possible can mean the difference between getting out of the court system or being caught in legal hell for months or years. In civil cases, waiting until you're actually sued can cost you money. Instead, seek one out as soon as you get a summons or complaint—a good lawyer can get you out of trouble there, good and early. After all, most of those cases never go to trial, they hang out in the early phases and eventually get settled out of court. In every case, the sooner you take the issue seriously, the better.
Legal representation doesn't come cheap. That's the biggest reason most of us don't deal with lawyers until we absolutely have to. Many of us just assume legal representation is prohibitively expensive, but that's not necessarily true. Services like LawTrades, previously mentioned LegalAdvice.com, LawHelp.org, and ProBono.net all offer ways to get basic legal advice for free. From there, the lawyers who work with those sites can either reach out to you directly to help you further, or recommend that you find a lawyer in your jurisdiction to represent you and examine your specific situation in detail.
The First Call, and How to Determine If a Lawyer is Right For You
When you make that first call to a prospective lawyer, you need to have as much information as possible at the ready. A productive first conversation will give both you and the lawyer on the other line a better idea of whether or not you can work together. While most of us think lawyers "take" our cases, the relationship is a two-way street. Your lawyer is your legal representation, which means you have a say in the matter too. The State Bar of Arizona has a great guide to this relationship, and that first conversation.
On your end, the first call or meeting should give you a feel for the lawyer, their level of experience, and how comfortable you would be working with them. On their end, they're trying to gauge your trustworthiness, the legitimacy of your claim or defense, and how successful—both legally and financially—they would be if they were to represent you.
Remember: Like your relationship with your doctor, you bear the responsibility for making sure it's productive and that you're satisfied. If you have questions, ask them. Your lawyer should be able to explain things clearly, in a manner you understand. If you want to know more about the lawyer's experience, or with your type of issue, ask about that, too. If those variables don't add up, you're uncomfortable, or you're worried your lawyer is less interested in representing your interests and more interested in making a statement or earning a ton of money, don't work with that lawyer.
Be Honest and Bring Everything to the Table
Once you've found a lawyer you're comfortable working with, lay all your cards on the table. Rule number one, says Unrath, is to be honest and truthful. Your conversations with them are legally protected, which means now's not the time to hold back. When your lawyer says "tell me everything," they mean it:
As Doctor House taught us, "People lie." There are two people to whom you should never lie: your doctor and your lawyer. I can't help you with your legal case unless you are truthful with me. I need to know what the other side is going to use against you. So whether it's cheating on your spouse in a divorce case, or hiding money in a contracts dispute, don't lie to your lawyer. This will make your case go more smoothly and (as a bonus) cost you less money.
The importance of honesty can't be understated here. The last thing your lawyer needs is to be blindsided by a late-game revelation that they should have known all along. Whatever it is, tell them early so they can prepare and adjust their case for it. If you're sitting on information and wondering if its relevant, ask them if it is. You shouldn't go off on tangents, but you also shouldn't sit on something because you think it's irrelevant. Err on the side of too much information. After all, they're your legal representation, and they need as much data from you to do their job properly.
What Your Lawyer Needs to Hear from You
Timothy Sandefur, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, offers a few more useful tips on his blog about how to interact with your lawyer. For one, he notes, make sure to tell your story chronologically, completing every thought before moving on to the next. Your lawyer is still a human being, and they need to experience the events you're describing or your situation as close to how they happened as possible. Jumping forward and back in time or going off on tangents is confusing, and may lead to an important detail being overlooked. Be specific, but avoid using legal terminology unless you absolutely know what you're talking about (for example, don't call something a "contract" or a "deed" unless you're certain it was, legally.)
Also, just because something is important to you doesn't mean it's legally important. It's not that your experiences don't matter, but some things that you may think are critical ("The cop didn't read me my rights before he cuffed me!") just aren't important to a court (in some situations, they're not required to). Mention those types of things once, and then continue to the next point. If they're critical, your lawyer will ask for more information. Similarly, try not to get emotional or upset if you don't think your lawyer is getting angry and as personally charged as you are. Your case is highly personal to you, and that's natural, but it's your lawyer's job to be clear-headed—not necessarily ready to take up torches and pitchforks in your defense.
Finally, Sandefur notes that if your lawyer needs something from you, it's extremely important to get it to them on time. Don't put it off, don't assume that Friday is the same as Monday morning. It may seem unfair since your lawyer may be the one asking for continuances or delays, but if they tell you they need something by a certain date, they really need it. Don't go dark on them either—if you're going to be out of touch or unreachable, let them know in advance.
Communicate Effectively: It Saves You Both Time and Money
Ahmed explained that every time you meet with your lawyer, it's critical to come prepared as well. After all, you're likely paying for the lawyer's time, so it's important to make the most of it. Your lawyer will understand this too. Make an outline of what you want to discuss with your lawyer before you meet with them, and what information you'd like to get out of the conversation by the time it's over. Send it to your lawyer ahead of time so you're both on the same page, and if you have any relevant documents, scan and email those too. That way they don't waste precious time reading them with you in the room during your meeting. Ahmed suggested setting up short, 15-20 minute meetings with your lawyer every month, or on a schedule that you and your lawyer agree on. Then you can call and follow-up on a schedule without worrying you're being a distraction.
As long as you communicate effectively beforehand, trade documents and read them in advance, and are clear on your expectations, that's all the time you'll need. Plus, you'll save money and spot potential legal issues early—with plenty of time to deal with them—before they become a big, expensive problem later. Finally, Ahmed reminds us to avoid playing phone tag and calling your lawyer repeatedly—you may want constant updates, but distracting them will only keep them preoccupied with updating you, rather than working through your project.
These tips, combined with our guide to finding a good lawyer, should help you find a great lawyer, and form a professional, productive relationship with them once you meet them. With luck, you'll both get what you need from the legal system, and you'll have a trustworthy legal resource you're comfortable working with anytime you need legal advice or representation.