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Communicating with your lawyer--What to ask, tell, & expect

Hiring a lawyer can be intimidating for people. You may not know what to expect, and sometimes people feel as if they should not ask too many questions of the lawyer, or they may feel overwhelmed by their situation and just not know what to ask. The most important component in the lawyer-client relationship, for any type of claim, is good communication. Below are some tips to make sure that you maintain good communication with your lawyer, and to guide you about what expectations are reasonable.

Things you should ASK your lawyer:

  1. ASK the lawyer to explain the terms of their FEE AGREEMENT. This document governs how they will be paid, and how costs of litigation will be handled. DO NOT SIGN it until you understand it.
  2. ASK the lawyer in the beginning of the relationship what their standard practice is for sending update letters about your case. Should you expect an update from them monthly? quarterly?
  3. ASK about the deadlines that apply to your case. The first and most important deadline in every case is the Statute of Limitations. If your case is not filed with the court before that deadline, the case will be extinguished forever and your rights will be lost.
  4. ASK how long a case like your typically takes to resolve, from start to finish.
  5. ASK for a general overview of the litigation process as it applies to your case. How far out into the future is my trial date likely to be? When will I have to give a deposition? How will you prepare me for my deposition? When will we have an opportunity to go to mediation?
  6. ASK what the ordinary procedure is for talking with the lawyer-- if you leave amessage for them, how soon asfter that should you expect a return call? If you call the office, are you always going to get transferred to the legal assistant or paralegal, or will you be able to speak to the lawyer when you want to speak to the lawyer?
  7. ASK what the weaknesses are in your claim and how the lawyer plans to manage those to best protect your interests.

Things you should TELL your lawyer:

  1. TELL the lawyer when they say something that does not make sense to you. The answers you get from a lawyer to your questions are not to serve the lawyer, they are to SERVE YOU. If you don't understand what is being told to you, then say so. Make sure your tell the lawyer what does not make sense, so they can find a better way to explain things.
  2. TELL the lawyer what the best way is to communicate with you. People are different! Some people find it easier to process new information by hearing it explained, others need to see things written down, and others need both. Tell the lawyer what your needs are in terms of communication.
  3. TELL the lawyer when you are going out of town or out of the country and how to reach you if they need to reach you while you are away.
  4. TELL the lawyer about any fact, document, or concern that you think might be harmful to your case. DO NOT KEEP SECRETS FROM YOUR LAWYER!! Remember, your conversations with your lawyer are privileged--that means they are a secret between you and the lawyer. Tell them everything. NEVER, EVER lie to your lawyer. They cannot protect you if you keep secrets from them. There are right ways and wrong ways to disclose and withhold information in a lawsuit. It is the lawyer's job to make sure information is handled correctly, so that your rights and interests are best protected.
  5. TELL the lawyer what your expectations are for return calls--if you need a return call within a certain period of time, or if you are calling about something you believe is urgent, make sure you say that in your message.
  6. TELL the lawyer about any interactions you may have had with the defendant before contacting the lawyer.
  7. TELL YOUR LAWYER THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH ABOUT EVERYTHING, NO MATTER HOW BAD YOU THINK IT IS.

Things to expect from your lawyer:

  1. Candor and professionalism
  2. Regular updates about your case
  3. Prompt responses to your calls and emails
  4. Direct answers to your questions
  5. Personal communication--there are certainly many things that a paralegal or legal assistant can handle, which don't require a personal call from the lawyer, BUT, that does not mean that you never talk to the lawyer. Decisions about how to move ahead with your claim should be made by the lawyer, which means they should be discussed with you by the lawyer.
  6. Detailed bills and accounting of costs. If your case is being handled on contingency, you pay a flat fee at the end, as opposed to receiving monthly bills for the lawyer's time. If you are receiving bills, you should expect a reasonably detailed description of what was done in the time for which you are being billed. Costs in a contingency case are handled at the end of the claim as well, but should be described in detail in an accounting, so that you can see what was spent and why. You should be updated regularly on what the costs are in your contingency case, so that this is not a surprise at the end of the case.
  7. Immediate notification of, and personal discussion with the attorney about, any and all offers of settlement--when and whether to settle a claim is ALWAYS the client's decision. Your lawyer can and should make recommendations about an offer, but the decision of whether to accept an offer of settlement belongs to the client.

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