October 04, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
There are two buildings in most towns that we generally want to stay as far away from as possible; the hospital and courthouse. Neither are happy places and both can be incredibly expensive.
For anyone facing potential litigation, or already deep into a suit, you should be asking a lot of questions. Law, like Medicine, has its share of borderline practitioners who see their clients, not as people to help, but as their very own piggy banks, just waiting to be cracked open.
Unless you have an established, long-term relationship with a lawyer or law firm who you trust, answers to these questions are critical:
“Am I in good legal hands? Do they have my best interests in mind or their own financial needs? Is my lawyer competent in this area of the law? Even if we win, will it be worth the expense and risk of loss? How did we get here in the first place? Was there a chance to have prevented this whole mess? Can we just cut our losses and get out?”
Of course, after asking those questions — with one hand holding a stack of bills from your lawyer, and the other a bottle of Tums — you’ll probably wonder, “How can a non-lawyer even begin to answer those questions? Is it wrong to question what my attorney is doing? Who do I turn to for guidance?”
The answer — a second legal opinion
Long ago, the medical profession — or more accurately, insurance companies who paid doctor bills — encouraged patients to obtain second and even third medical opinions before undergoing certain medical procedures. While there are lawyers who do urge their clients to get a second opinion, it is not a common practice. It should be.
Northern California Attorney Michael Hanks believes that second opinions can have a critically important function in a healthy attorney — client relationship. In law practice over 30 years, based in Gold River, California, Mr. Hanks has written extensively about the kinds of cases which benefit most from that second opinion.
“I encourage second opinions on difficult cases, or cases where reasonable, well-informed clients can have different views,” he told me “In fact, when I feel strongly that a client should or should not do certain things, I make them an offer most find to be extremely interesting,” he added.
“There are times when a client may question my evaluation or opinion on an important matter. When that happens, I tell them that if they wish to get a second opinion from another attorney, if that attorney disagrees with my advice, I will pay for the consultation. To be sure my client speaks with an experienced lawyer, I provide a list of attorneys who I know are qualified to provide that second opinion,” he points out.
“Occasionally clients and their lawyers might seem to be on different planets, where the client can’t wait to have that suit filed, and the lawyer is urging a different approach. Typically, this often arises when a client is focusing on principal over economics or practicalities.”
“My typical advice in these situations is that principal is a red herring — it should not form the basis of a decision to file suit,” Attorney Hanks stressed.
Where the client is motivated by “a desire to teach someone a lesson,” Mr. Hanks offers this bit of advice to new lawyers about second opinions.
“Let’s say your client has a neighbor who refuses to chip in on replacing their common wooden fence and wants you to file suit for the principle of it. You better explain this could be horribly expensive, ultimately disappointing and not a good idea where neighbors are concerned. Tell the client that you won’t do a thing unless they get that second opinion. Experience usually proves chances are good the client will be told the same thing, see the light and everyone gains,” he points out.
“A lawyer has an ethical duty to help clients find an economic solution. Sometimes, that solution is to just walk away, not throwing good money after bad, or possibly sending them to Small Claims Court. Often, it will be a recommendation of settling for far less than the client wants, just to make the thing go away. That is where an opinion from another lawyer — as to the value of the case — is often valuable,” Mr. Hanks added.
“Yes, but I don’t want to upset my lawyer”
I asked Attorney Hanks how he responds to this frequently heard statement: “I’m really not all that happy with the way things are going, but at the same time, afraid to upset my lawyer. What if he just walks away from my case or get mad at me when I tell him what the other lawyer said?”
“That’s a legitimate concern, but not something I would overly worry about,” the Northern California attorney replied.
“Lawyers have tough skins. While some people call us sharks, I think we are much more like elephants. We are considered as medical miracles — our skin is so tough that most surgeons, if given a chance to operate on a lawyer, have an extra charge for knife sharpening.”
“Seriously, in all my years of practice, I have never come across a lawyer who was upset because a client got a second opinion, unless that other lawyer was trying to steal the case, or had some other agenda.”
Finally, I asked Mr. Hanks about clients who might object to paying “just” to discuss this case with another lawyer.
“Litigation is a negative, expensive situation to be in. Even the idea of just talking about a case — and having to pay for that little chat — is upsetting to a lot of people. It is best to look at a second legal opinion just as you would a medical opinion. Sure, it will cost something, but could, in the long run, save you a great deal of money. It could result in your changing lawyers. Or, might even prevent that lawsuit from ever being filed in the first place,” Mr. Hanks concluded.
Next Week: The story of the auto mechanic who finally did get that second opinion, after spending over $50,000 in a suit which should never have been filed.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.