Someone ought to write a set of guidelines for laymen to use when they call a lawyer. Too often I get calls from people who are obviously very upset, and who only get more upset when it seems like I’m not listening to their problems. I think I’m good with speaking to clients, but people often have a hard time telling me what I need to know.
1. Keep in mind that what is important to you about your case may not be legally important. That doesn’t mean that your complaints are unreasonable or don’t matter. It just means that there are some things a court will consider important and they’re different from what is important to you.
2. Be as specific as you possibly can. If your neighbors have been a problem since you moved in, that’s awful, but you have to be more specific than that. Names, dates, and exact incidents are all a court is going to listen to.
3. Complete your thoughts before you go to another one. Often when a person’s speaking to me, he’ll be halfway through a sentence that is very important to me, and then will break off to mention something else that isn’t really relevant, and when I try to steer him back to what he was saying, it sounds like I’m not listening.
4. Tell your story chronologically. Nothing is more confusing than to tell things to me out of order. If the city is condemning your house, and they also towed your car three years ago, tell me about the car first. Otherwise I have to try to write it all down while talking to you, to figure out what happened when, and then I can’t pay as much attention to what you’re saying as I would like to.
5. Be honest. Your conversation with your lawyer is absolutely confidential—in California, I am legally required to protect “at every peril to [my]self, the secrets of [my] client.” So you can admit if you screwed up. And it’s extremely important that you do so. Clients lie to lawyers all the time—and it always hurts them in the end. (But do tell your lawyer that something is a secret, so that he doesn’t accidentally let it slip.)
6. Don’t tell me that some other lawyer was an idiot. This does not help.
7. Err on the side of giving me too much information. This may sound inconsistent with number 2, but it’s still important. When you see a lawyer, you’re tempted to just open up and let the whole thing flood out. It’s the lawyer’s job to sift what you say into a coherent legal issue in his mind. Being specific helps a lot, but it’s better to tell me too much, than to tell me too little.
8. Do not use legal terminology. You do not know how to use it. If you try, you will only confuse your lawyer or even mislead him. If you call something a contract, or a deed, or a will, when it is not—or if you try to use even more complicated terminology, like referring to specific statutes and whatnot—the lawyer might think you know what you’re talking about. Perhaps you do, but if you don’t, (a) you might get upset when the lawyer explains to you that it is actually not a contract or a deed or a will, and (b) the lawyer might misunderstand your question and give you a bad answer. So use laymen’s language. Just say what happened.
9. Do not speak of doing something illegal. This hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard of clients telling lawyers things like “Well, maybe I’ll just do such-and-such anyway, and let them come get me,” or something. A lawyer is not allowed to advise you to do something illegal, and lawyers I know would be extremely bothered by you saying something like this. But of course you shouldn’t lie to your lawyer. So what’s the answer? Don’t consider doing illegal things. Simple.
10. Do not call every day—but do call. I know it seems like your lawyer never calls you. But many times it’s because your lawyer just doesn’t have anything new to tell you. If your hearing is in three weeks, well, there’s no difference on Tuesday than there was on Monday. All we can say is, “Your hearing is in three weeks.” On the other hand, lawyers, like everyone else, get busy sometimes and lose track of things—and we work for you. We are your employees. We are experts—so don’t micromanage us—but we are your employees, so you have the right to supervise us. So call us once a week. If anything else comes up, we’ll call you.
11. When we say we need something from you—give it to us. Deadlines are called that for a reason. They terrify lawyers. If we need something by Friday, we really, really, really need it by Friday. Do not put it off. I know your lawyer puts things off sometimes, asks for continuances and whatnot—so that seems unfair—but that’s just the way it works. You absolutely must get things to us by the deadline. If you’re going on vacation and can’t be reached by phone, tell us. Nothing’s worse than needing a witness’ or a client’s signature on something, and not being able to get hold of him.
Those are the things I can think of for now. I’m sure other lawyers have things to add to the list. Maybe we could put all these together and publish a website of Things To Keep In Mind When You Call A Lawyer.