Dealing With Attorneys And The Legal System Successfully – The Top Ten Things You Can Do To Win Your Case
Because your case is important enough to hire an attorney, it’s critical to review the areas that can make an attorney/client relationship productive and positive, so as to avoid bad results on a case and hard feelings on both sides.
1. Never, ever agree to something in a legal case unless you have all your questions and concerns resolved before you decide. Once you have decided and your attorney proceeds, a variety of unpleasant things happen if you change your mind. If you are uncertain and need more time to think it over, that is usually possible, unless there is an imminent trial or some other crisis, but at least you can discuss any possible downside to delaying your decision until you are certain.
2. On hourly cases, when you send your attorney emails, or call or send them information to look at, it adds up more than one would think. Considering in advance whether that communication is worth the cost, is better than opening your monthly bill and being appalled.
3. Schedule appointments by phone or in person if you want to be certain to get hold of your attorney and have their full attention. If you drop by, it is quite likely they will be at a hearing, with another client or working on another case and unavailable or not fully attentive. If you call, you may well reach them but it’s also possible they are unavailable or pressed with other cases. For example, compare a situation where the attorney makes time for a call in the middle of hearing preparations on another case, compared to the attorney knows there is a question and client is calling at two and has time to think over any issues mentioned and potentially look into them so as to maximize the time spent. If you are on a flat fee or contingency fee case, it’s still a good idea to schedule time, because you want the full attention of your attorney and you want solid answers to your questions, even if you’re not being billed for the time spent. Keep in mind that if you are spending more time than you need to with counsel, that means they have less time to work on your case and other cases. If you can’t keep a scheduled appointment, notify the office as soon as you are aware of the problem.
4. Retainers are often the subject of disagreements because clients sometimes feel the retainer is the amount they should pay on their case. However, an hourly case is just that, it is not a flat fee and the retainer is simply an initial estimate of how much work might be involved. The final number might be more or less than the retainer amount depending on how the case goes. In some cases, attorneys will quote a lower retainer in the hopes that things go well and it will help the client and then both the attorney and client are unhappy when it is inadequate for the case. If you are concerned about your retainer, have a discussion at the time you sign the fee agreement to get an idea of how likely it is more retainer money might be needed and be aware of things you can do to keep case costs down.
5. Work closely with counsel when things like negotiations and trial preparation are going on, because delay on your part can mean additional expense, or trying to do too much at the last minute. Things like vacation, general dislike of the legal process, etc., feed into this but the results are the same. Speaking of dislike for the legal process, most clients hate doing things like answering discovery requests. Your attorney can’t make that go away, all they can do is help you get through it and protect you from abuse. So don’t make it worse by delaying on legal requirements that have deadlines.
6. There is a certain blurriness in most cases with regards to settlement negotiations and trial. Most cases in this country settle and often for very good reasons since it eliminates risk for both sides and because it’s rare that either side has a perfect case, or that there’s not some room to come to an agreement that will meet the needs of both parties. So there is usually an attempt on one or both sides to resolve the matter. That is often a good thing, but it’s important for the client to either make a good effort to work with counsel to get a deal, or to elect to just be ready for hearing if they feel this is not possible and they’d rather hazard the risks of litigation (and the costs). It’s very important to be clear with counsel if you’ve reached the point that you just want to go to hearing.
7. Good communication between clients and attorneys is critical but is somehow, often a problem. Attorneys are regularly accused of not telling their clients enough about the law and what is happening, while attorneys often get upset that their client failed to mention critical things to them that affect the outcome of the case. An attorney should keep you fully informed on the progress of the case, how the law works and what your legal options are because it is their job to advise and assist you through the legal process. If you want an update, have questions or concerns, you should email or set up a time to talk it over. It helps to explain what’s on your mind in advance to get the best results, in case something needs to be looked up or thought about. As to when you should contact counsel and what is important, if your attorney has explained the case and what is important, you should have an instinct as to what developments are important to your case. For example, in a divorce, it matters a great deal that you just got a promotion or are thinking of moving once the case is over. On the other hand if you feel your soon to be ex is getting snippier, that warrants a brief email, if anything, unless it is beginning to implicate something like co-parenting.
8. Delays in the legal system are standard and very frustrating to clients and attorneys. Whenever a hearing is set, it has to accommodate the trial schedules of both attorneys, what the court has available, and any constraints of the parties, witnesses, and problems associated with the case. That means that what you might think would be a reasonable time to have a hearing, is not what happens. However, it would be a mistake to think that your attorney can force the judge or opposing counsel to set a hearing date that is better for you. They can certainly do their best, but you can assist them by advising them of any scheduling difficulties on your end, and understanding that they don’t get to call the shots on this.
9. Unreasonable opposing counsel or parties cause a lot of trouble in the legal system. The only satisfaction is knowing that a judge or jury will usually settle their hash, eventually. But it is frustrating that an obnoxious party and their counsel can cause a client money, trouble and stress. Keep in mind that some abuses can be dealt with by your attorney, but there are many things that are considered normal within the legal system that they can’t change. For example, opposing counsel can ask for quite a bit of information in discovery that causes the client to spend far too much time getting that information to their attorney. However, your attorney can’t refuse to answer discovery, unless it crosses a line where they can successfully object. Getting angry with counsel and the system is tempting, but it doesn’t mean your attorney can single handedly change the legal system, even when it is annoying and time consuming (and expensive).
10. A final word should include a mention of short tempers and other undesirable things that crop up in litigation. When a client has a lot at stake and counsel is under deadlines, it’s not very difficult to predict that one or possibly both of them might get cranky. This is particularly true because the legal system is not only adversarial; it is a lot like a fight with any number of participants and a great deal of uncertainty. If you are aware, going into a legal matter, that you are stressed, your attorney is unlikely to be able to control all aspects of the legal system or outcome and that melting down is unlikely to improve your relationship with counsel, it can help at stressful times.