Where’s my Lawyer?
Many of our callers believe that when seeking an attorney, they need only dial a number, and they will be connected directly to an attorney for advice on what to do. Some even hang up when they reach another member of staff.
It’s Not a Hot Line?
While the notion of having a “hot line” for potential clients may seem reasonable to those desiring legal advice, it is impractical outside the structure of a free clinic. This is for many reasons, both pragmatic and ethical.
The first rule of law is that attorneys are ethically bound to serve their clients to the best of their ability. Most attorneys will request that those seeking guidance engage them formally prior to providing that advice. Attorneys are encouraged to formalize all relationships by ethical guidelines provided them by the State Bar.
The Attorney-Client Relationship
The attorney-client relationship is key. For it to succeed, it must be clear to the client what the attorneys believe they can accomplish. The attorneys must obtain a well-rounded picture of the client’s circumstances before providing advice and/or guidance. Once a prospective client has discussed their legal needs, a fee structure must be negotiated. When client and attorney reach a deal both find acceptable, the attorney will memorialize it in a retainer agreement. Each party must sign to indicate that the terms are acceptable.
This arrangement provides the prospective client with the protections of a clearly specified and understood attorney-client relationship. It also gives the attorneys a clear target at which to aim their skill sets. Clear communication is critical to future collaboration. While there may be some useful information to be found in the cookie-cutter answers meant to respond to generic questions, they rarely solve the problems callers face without further exploration. Questions answered without further probing by an attorney, rarely address the heart of a prospective client’s legal dilemma.
The Fee for Service
We can all agree that it is unreasonable to expect anyone to provide their services for free. Most callers expect questions to be answered without payment or an agreement. The idea that there should be remuneration for those efforts often escapes the conversation. It is unlikely that these people would find it reasonable if they were asked to offer their services for free. In fact, that problem is often the reason for the initial call. Ironically, employment attorneys are in the business of seeing that others are paid fairly for their work.
The Risks of Free Advice
The idea that advice is usually free may be a misunderstanding created by the proliferation of “talk show call-in” lawyers. There are also websites available on the internet that purport to offer reliable answers to legal questions. Such sites are carefully constructed at an attempt to avoid being “direct” legal advice. The information gleaned in this manner is generally useless. Sometimes it can be dangerous. All legal advice needs to be applied to an individual’s own unique set of facts and circumstances. Relying on general information about the law in order to respond to events in one’s own life that may require legal guidance is not a sound method for moving forward.
Conflicts of Interest
Prospective clients should also be aware of potential for conflicts of interest. Without a handle on your identity, an attorney cannot know whether or not she has a conflict of interest in your case. There is always a chance that an attorney you reach out to may have done work for your employer at some point in a long-distant past. Perhaps he represented the manager with whom you are having a dispute in an employment dispute of their own, once upon a long-ago litigation.
Advice Unique to the Individual
A good attorney deals in facts, and uses the facts unique to each individual, to create scenarios where the law applies in the client’s favor. Without a full history of those facts, there cannot exist a proper climate in which to practice the law to your benefit. Support staff will be tasked with obtaining all these initial facts because it is the most efficient method. They will also instruct prospective clients on the best methods for obtaining documentation from the employer to support their case. It is not a practical use of an attorney’s time to procure the basics of information from new clients before their potential claim has been established.
Cooperation Produces Results
With these factors in mind, prospective callers must recognize that when you reach out to counsel, they will want a good deal of information from you before moving forward to assist you. This information is gathered both to protect the potential client, as well as themselves. Without it, there could be an inadvertent misapplication of the law as it applies to your claims. If you are unwilling to take the time to provide that information, you will be very unlikely to obtain quality legal representation. It is also the case that good attorneys will be selective in accepting cases from clients who don’t wish to engage in a cooperative relationship. Litigation is a great deal of work, and the client must be willing to be part of the team.
You Get What You “Pay” For
You may eventually find someone who is sitting around his or her office waiting for the phone to ring. But good lawyers are generally successful, and successful people are busy. As the old adage says, “you get what you pay for.” We might even take that a step further, and say you get out only what you are willing to put in to the relationship. The easier the route chosen, the less likely it will result in your prevailing on the merits.
Honesty is Key
Working with a lawyer should be a collaborative and open process. If you begin it by hedging your bets or hiding select facts, the result for you down the line is likely to be unsatisfactory. Facts have a way of coming out in the discovery process. The last thing any attorney wants is to be blind-sided by information that was withheld by a client.
So when you are madly dialing away in the hopes you can “catch the attorney in,” keep in mind that a few moments spent informing support staff of your needs is far more likely to help you achieve that goal than calling dozens of offices until an attorney actually picks up the phone.
Lazear Mack, LLP
Employment Law Attorneys
436 14th Street, Suite 1117