People looking for lawyers are often stressed, confused and afraid that someone may try to take advantage of them. Because of this, sometimes potential clients say or do things that concern the lawyer they’re talking with. Lawyers sometimes refer to these concerning actions from potential clients as ‘red flags’ – and if a potential client raises too many red flags, that may even result in the lawyer deciding that they are not the right person to help with the situation.
To help avoid this type of situation, I’ve compiled the list of tips below is a list of tips to help you build a successful relationship with your lawyer/potential lawyer. Keep these tips in mind during your interactions, and when your case ends you will hopefully feel good about your experience with the lawyer/client relationship.
Many of these tips have to deal with expectations. It is absolutely ok to ask questions of your lawyer (see my post on choosing a lawyer) but you should keep an open mind when entering into a new relationship with a lawyer.
- Only take legal advice from your lawyer. Sometimes other professionals will (wrongfully) give folks legal advice. While they may mean well, the law says only a lawyer can give legal advice. Do not take legal advice from Realtors, CPAs or other professionals.
- Do not compare your bankruptcy (or other legal situation) to a friend or family member’s bankruptcy. Every case is unique based on the person’s facts. The laws and how the laws are interpreted can change. Just because something did or didn’t happen in a friend or family member’s case does not mean it will or will not happen in your case.
- Not everything you read on the internet is true. There are many forums giving legal advice and do–it–yourself legal advice. Laws vary from state to state and even vary depending on what part of a state you live in.
- Principles are expensive. As an example, some folks may admit that they owe a debt but they dispute a very small percentage of a debt. When people want to make a creditor ‘pay,’ that’s a huge red flag and in reality, it may cost you more money to prove the point than to let go of the principle and focus on resolving the larger issue at hand.
- Look for ways to move forward and not point fingers at others. As another example, some folks are outraged that the bank refused to work with them when they fell behind on payments. Blaming the bank does not help resolve your current situation.
- Accept the situation you are in. Disbelief and stress come with the territory, but failing to be able to discuss the situation and only focusing on how unfair you feel the situation is can be a problem. It is difficult for a lawyer to help you if you cannot have an ongoing discussion about your situation.
- If you are confused, ask your lawyer (not the internet, family or another lawyer). First, non-lawyers cannot give legal advice. Second, it can really hamper the attorney/client relationship when a client has questions and is asking those questions of everyone but the lawyer. Remember, your lawyer is an expert and you’re paying them to help you.
- Give your lawyer a chance to return your telephone call or e-mail. Lawyers are people, too. My firm strives to return calls the same or the next business day. Do not expect that your lawyer can return every call and e-mail within minutes. The lawyer and the lawyer’s staff may be gone for the day, in a meeting with other clients or in court.
- Actively listen to what your lawyer tells you. While it may be difficult to retain everything a lawyer says during an hour–long consultation or meeting, it is important to hear the lawyer’s words, process what they are saying and ask any questions you may have. I also encourage clients to take notes during meetings.
- At the initial consultation, create your questions based on what the lawyer tells you. It is ok to bring questions with you, but the lawyer may answer most or all of them during the consultation.
- Be realistic or try to understand if you are not being realistic. For example, I sometimes give potential Chapter 13 bankruptcy clients (the type of bankruptcy where there is a monthly payment) a checklist of tasks they need to accomplish before I will take them on as a client. These checklists are usually things I believe are necessary for the client to be successful in their Chapter 13 bankruptcy case. If you get such a list and know that you cannot or do not want to complete the items on the list, tell the lawyer up front. Do not tell the lawyer you have completed tasks/checklists only to have to explain to the lawyer at the next meeting that you actually did not complete the list. Again, remember that you hired your lawyer to help you. Help them help you.
- Focus on the issue at hand. It is understandable that folks struggling financially are stressed and sometimes they need to vent. As lawyers part of our job is to listen. Continuing to bring up issues that are unrelated to your case, however, will impede moving your case forward.
- Understand that sometimes getting a fresh start means having to make sacrifices. Sometimes you may have to give up property, cut back on spending for certain items or tell certain people you are filing bankruptcy. As an example, if you have a child support obligation it is a requirement of the bankruptcy code that the other parent receive notice of the bankruptcy. That can be uncomfortable for some people, but it is a means to an end to get your fresh start.
- The first time you contact a lawyer, call the lawyer yourself. If you are not comfortable making the call, be in the room with the person making the call. It may be, in certain circumstances, that it can be arranged that a family member go through the process with you. You, however, are going to be the client, not your friend or family member, and the lawyer needs to speak with you directly.
- Do not keep information from the lawyer. What you keep from your lawyer may hurt your case. Make sure when telling the lawyer about your situation and filling out paperwork that you do not withhold anything. In a bankruptcy context, failing to tell the whole truth about your debts, bank account balances or assets can result in losing property, not receiving a discharge or even being accused of bankruptcy fraud.
- When it comes to unpaid debts, focus on getting a fresh start and not finding a ‘gotcha’ moment to ‘beat’ the creditor. There is a lot of information on the internet about beating credit card companies. If it were as easy to beat credit card lawsuits and make them pay you money as those websites claim, credit cards would probably stop suing people. Sometimes they do make mistakes that violate the law, but let your lawyer make that determination.
- Let the lawyer decide what is important or relevant. Facts or information that may not seem important to you may be critical to your case’s success. It is much better to tell your lawyer too much rather than not enough.
- Be on time. Lawyers have very hectic schedules. If you show up an hour late for an appointment you may not get to spend the amount of time with your lawyer that both you and your lawyer need to properly analyze your situation. Or, the lawyer may not be able to see you if you are late because of other meetings or court settings. A potential client who is late or misses an appointment is a red flag. Make sure to leave with plenty of time to arrive at your lawyer’s office.
The information contained in this blog is for general information and educational purposes and is not legal advice. Reading these posts does not create an attorney/client relationship.