February 27, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

Today’s story will be of special interest to readers who already have or will soon retain an attorney and wish to develop and maintain a good professional relationship. It is based on our discussions with Denver, Colorado paralegal, Ellen Hughes, author of “Be a Smart Client,” a book which we recommend to anyone hiring a lawyer.

20 years as a paralegal in various fields gave her a unique insight into those factors leading to a positive attorney-client relationship, as well as what leads to trouble, Hughes observing, “Most problems are due to poor communication leading to misinterpretation, incomplete instructions and unreasonable client expectations.”

As her book makes clear — and as any lawyer will tell you — that first consultation is far more important than many clients realize.

“You can have a great case, meeting with the right lawyer, but make a poor impression and you’ll wander in search of legal help a long time. An experienced lawyer will place you under a microscope, judging how sincere, truthful, and believable you seem when telling your story.

“And if you don’t think that appearance matters,” she cautions, “Think again. Dressing in ripped, dirty clothes or looking like you just rolled out of bed sends a message that you aren’t serious about your case, so why should anyone else?”

Of course lawyers are not mind readers and what scares us most are facts which clients have left out. This happens for a variety of reasons, often, simply because they just forgot, but far too often, because of embarrassment. Hughes has a recommendation which will minimize the chance of this happening:

“Before you meet with the lawyer, prepare notes which outline all the facts–favorable and unfavorable–and if you are ill, or on medication, take a friend to the interview who is aware of your legal problem. That person may catch the things you miss or think of other questions to ask the attorney.”

So, let’s assume this first meeting is going well. You are feeling good about the lawyer, have obtained a cost and time estimate, you’re confident in receiving excellent representation, and are about to sign the retainer agreement.

“Not so fast,” cautions Hughes. “Remember, the lawyer works for you, not the other way around. This is the time to politely indicate some of the things that you believe are important and what you expect. Don’t be afraid. You can even say ‘I read something called The Client Constitution.’”

It sure does, as you’ll see.

Today, it is a buyer’s market when hiring a lawyer, because there are too many of us! So, that means clients are better able to negotiate fees downwards if what is asked seems too high. But more than fees, as Hughes recommends, and we agree, from that first meeting, here is a partial list of the things you need under what she refers to as “The Client Constitution,” and include:

  • To be kept current on all case developments in a timely manner.
  • Be copied on all correspondence and court filed documents immediately after filing.
  • To be provided a schedule in advance of court ordered appearance dates, depositions, and discovery due dates and if they have been met.
  • Photocopying not more than 15 cents (or local average) per page.
  • All invoices to be charged to client without markup.
  • Before incurring any expense over a certain amount, to be notified.
  • A detailed monthly statement showing a description of the service performed and time billed.
  • Only one lawyer and/or staff to attend meetings, hearing or depositions unless your prior approval for more is obtained.

An attorney-client relationship is built on trust and honesty. Hughes makes it clear, that as a client, you have a great responsibility and need to:

  • Tell your lawyer everything and don’t lie!
  • Respond to all requests in a timely manner.
  • Keep messages short and to the point.
  • Be on time and dress appropriately for all meetings
  • Carefully read all the documents you are given. Ask about anything you do not understand.
  • Keep all paperwork organized and a record of the documents you give to the attorney.
  • If possible only provide copies.
  • Always keep their office informed of your contact information.
  • Pay your bill on time.
  • Realize that constant phone calls are annoying and waste time, so be considerate.

“Be a Smart Client” is an investment in your case. Available in English and Spanish, it’s the best book of its kind that we have come across, and Hughes’ website is well worth a visit.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.