We've all heard horror stories from the legal trenches.... Your lawyer fails to show up, he doesn't make an objection when it's the most important moment, he or she loses your big case for you... The list can go on and on. From the trenches of the largest municipal court system in the nation (Chicago's Cook County Circuit Court), here are some tips from one in the know (in no particular order)...
When money comes between you and your lawyer, you are less likely to get your attorney's attention, best performance, or sympathy. Would you blow off your dentist after he's cleaned your teeth? NO, you have to make payment then and there. Would you walk out of the grocery store without paying? No, you have to pay then and there. Would you forget your checkbook on the day of trial? You would be surprised just how many people think attorneys can and should wait. Well guess what. If you don't pay your lawyer on the day of trial, or however you have agreed to, then while he or she may be obligated by other ethical duties to do his/her best, they won't be motivated by sympathy for you, and it will show in court. One of the best indicators that you are telling the truth to your lawyer, is to do what you say you will as to money. If you have stiffed your lawyer, you should be careful in having a similar expectation that your attorney will do their best for you. It's a reciprocal relationship. When you breach the contract by not paying, then don't be surprised when your lawyer quits. Even on the day of trial. Solution? Pay your attorney in full, on time, and with full communication. Keeping money out of your legal issue is the smartest way to get good results from someone driven to help you. Financial aspects can easily confuse the priorities, for both sides.
If your lawyer doubts you in the consultation, or doesn't think you have a case, while that may change over time, getting over an initial disbelief is very hard. You have to prove your case. Your attorney is not your witness. They are your advocate - but you are responsible for coming up with proof. That comes in the form of what will later be evidence (such as documents, photos, or live people to testify about the facts). If no one can confirm that the story is true, you will at least need something external, such as a hard copy document, to prove your case. Be prepared.
When your lawyer tells you to come to court or to a deposition - dress up for God's sake. When I see people at the courthouse looking like they are on their way to a nightclub, I know that they are a) low-class; b) going to lose their case; and c) their ego got in the way. If I can see your boobs, so can the judge. If the judge can see your boobs, he's not listening to your story. If I can see your boobs, then I know you didn't care enough about yourself to talk to an attorney. Dress like you are going to church. Credibility is one of the most important things in this world - and most important in a courtroom. If you care enough only to wear sweats to the courthouse, then the judge will see that you don't care, and that will be reflected in their desire to help you, listen to you, and decide in your favor. Step it up. Your case depends on it.
It's expensive because we have to wait in line too. Going to court is more than dressing up in a fancy suit and knowing what papers to fill out. Attorneys have to wait in line just like the "regular folk" and we are at the mercy of the court staff just like everyone else. If you get a bill that includes time spent waiting in court, it's not usually exaggerated. While some people may stretch the truth - if you want to see whether I had to wait an hour for the case to get called, then just come with me to court. Some courtrooms have more than 50 cases on the call. Your case may not be first or even ninth. I have been number 210 on the list before. It takes time. Most people hired attorneys because they don't want to sit in court. Well, truth be told, neither do I. The difference between lawyer and client is that the lawyer expects it to take a long time and understands. The client typically thinks it's unjustified. So, your hard truth is that each case takes time. Be patient.
I know, I know. Every client's case is a winner. Everyone who sits in my office is right. We all know. However, just because you are right in principle, does not mean that you will win. Much of the legal process is about what is more likely than not, and who is more believable. Sometimes it's about who is likeable. Sometimes the guy with the nicer or more articulate lawyer wins. While juries usually get it right, sometimes, it's not about whether a particular matter is emotional or simple, complicated or straightforward. Sometimes people make decisions on who has the nicer suit, or who is more pleasant to deal with. So even if your case is good or even if it's not so strong. Put your best foot forward and be nice. You never know if you are sitting next to a potential juror on the bus. The strength of your case in a courtroom is not directly related to your being right or wrong.
If you can't prove the terms of your arrangement to me in my office, you probably don't have a case. While lawyers can certainly take your money and your time and we can file a case that will be very hard to win, if you don't care enough about your life to get a contract, the judge is not very likely to be on your side. At least, not automatically. Oral contracts are extremely hard to prove. What are the terms. Who agreed to do what? How can you prove it? Does that oral agreement conflict with the law? If it's important, write it down.
If you leave a message longer than say, 30 seconds, when you are first calling me to set up an appointment, I will not be interested in calling you back. I don't want a 10 page email about your problem or a long voicemail, before I've even met you. If you can't articulate your issue in 10 seconds or less (like "I think I've got a breach of contract situation" or "I have a real estate issue", then I have to wonder how smart you are. No one likes representing a client they don't like or believe in. Be the best version of yourself, and that starts with your initial contact to an attorney. If you are telling me your life story before we've even met, chances are we are not going to meet. Or, even if I meet you, if I don't want your case but I'm still trying to be polite, then I'll quote a retainer that is outrageously high so that you won't choose me. Don't forget that lawyers don't always need to take more cases. Yes, new clients are a great thing, but I don't want clients that will eat all my time and get no where fast. Your tip: keep your communication very simple and to the point.
If you and I have an appointment, I don't need to be meeting everyone else. Not that I mind generally, but to be honest, bringing other people usually makes you late, unfocused and inattentive. Other people will distract you, interrupt you and are generally not helpful. As the attorney, I only need to talk to people that have an interest in, and know the case. Find a babysitter. Bringing your children to my office creates distractions and does not help you.
These suggestions may not apply to everyone in every case, but they are a good bench mark for having and maintaining a good relationship with an attorney. While many won't say some of these things, they are often being thought. You can better prepare yourself for success by following those tips and most of all, bring a positive attitude. I, like most attorneys, love meeting new people. Having to consult with an attorney does not need to be a negative. I find that people who are open to suggestion, who can be candid and honest, get a lot out of meeting with me, and I get a lot as well. Best of luck, and keep your eyes open for news you can use.