Living Happily With Your Lawyer

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Client: “Here’s my cheque for your retainer. I get to ask two questions, right?”
Lawyer: “Absolutely. What’s the other question?”

In real life, the relationship with your lawyer is no joking matter. A legal matter can often be complex, uncertain and, yes, intimidating. How you work with your legal counsel may prove to be the most important factor in achieving both satisfaction and success.

Hiring a lawyer is really an exercise in setting and managing expectations. Of course, you need someone experienced in the area of law involved; a referral is usually best, especially from a trusted source who has actually used the lawyer’s services. However, it is also important to connect on a more personal basis. Choose an individual or firm whom you enjoy dealing with. After all, if you are going to be in this together, it should be a good fit.

Before and after the lawyer is retained, you must be candid at all times. If you feel reluctant to speak up, chances are the hiring criteria did not focus enough on the interpersonal connection. Whatever the reason, you only serve to undermine your own cause by withholding or misrepresenting essential facts. Similarly, your lawyer needs to have the same kind of openness and directness with you.

Both parties should also listen carefully to each other, even if they do not like what they hear. For example, if you lack confidence in the legal services being provided, that overriding concern needs to be expressed clearly and directly. Failure to communicate and discuss such fundamental issues is at the root of many relationship breakdowns. It is no different in the lawyer-client context. 

To help avoid a blockage in that communication channel, periodic reviews of your ongoing relationship can be set up to address general issues of timeliness, billings, etc. -whether in person, by telephone or email. This idea may be resisted by some lawyers, particularly if they are exceedingly busy or somewhat fearful of feedback. However, it actually creates the opportunity to evaluate how both parties are fulfilling expectations. It can also strengthen your business connection. 
As part of being candid, billing arrangements must be established up front (from hourly rates and estimated fees, to retainers and payment terms). Neither party should be shy or misinformed about this subject. Law is a business. Clients are asked to pay after-tax dollars for legal services, so they need to be aware of the financial commitment, which can be significant. If payments are not made on time, the message is that the client does not value the work performed nor take it seriously.

If you expect or want prompt attention, it should not be a surprise that consciously or not, your lawyer will tend to deal first and foremost with paying clients. It is not a secret that most private companies follow that practice. Lawyers, however, sometimes ignore or forget to talk about payment history when non-paying clients demand attention. It is incumbent on both parties to be aware that payment does not become the real, unspoken issue between them.

Getting results is also about recognizing that lawyers have multiple priorities placed on their time. To put it bluntly, you need to get in line. Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways to do this. Advance warning is one way. Involve your lawyer in the process early, even if it is a quick heads-up to let them know something is happening in your world that may require timely legal attention (cell phones, Blackberries and similar devices make this task nearly effortless). That discussion may also serve to avoid a legal misstep. Be prepared and organized. Provide a brief agenda or memo, including materials to review. A lawyer’s productivity greatly depends on knowing precisely what is to be accomplished. A little effort to perhaps save a lot of time and money in the long-run.

On occasion, you may discover a friend or family member has a different opinion than your lawyer, or you attempt to do some or all of the legal work yourself. It is instructive to remember that your facts are unique, the law is always changing and, for those reasons, you are paying an expert for guidance. Commit to and rely on your lawyer to get your money’s worth -unless and until you are absolutely convinced or forced to abandon the original plan.

A lawyer can be an integral part of your advisory team. You should assemble over time a complimentary group of legal, tax, insurance, financial and other advisors. Ensure that they are aware of each other. Such awareness leads to sharing ideas to better protect and benefit your interests. Also consider your lawyer to be a resource for referrals and other opportunities (including the chance to be profiled in a newsletter or to sponsor a community or charitable event). 
It is important to take a proactive and preventative approach to your legal needs. If you follow that path, it should lead to a more effective and cost-efficient relationship with your lawyer – and a much healthier, happier one too.