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Being A Better Client

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Getting the Most from Your Attorney for Better Results

As a business owner, dealing with legal issues is often a distraction from your mission. It can be expensive in both dollar costs and time away from what you do best. While you must continue to run your business, it is essential that you remain involved in the legal process. Sending the file to the attorney and then forgetting about it (or emotionally refusing to deal with it) will often lead to more expense and stress later down the road. Perhaps these general thoughts will help you become the effective client your lawyer and your business need. Every matter is different, so discuss these thoughts with your attorney to determine if they are helpful. Based upon many years of experience, I believe they will be.

People tend to wait too long to hire counsel. Some common but ultimately bad thoughts small business owners have are:

  • Maybe the situation will pass.
  • Maybe we can work something out before we spend money.
  • Who knows what all this contractual gibberish means but I trust these people.

Waiting often makes things more expensive. Spend a little money early and perhaps save a big problem. Even if the matter still escalates, at least you are not running around looking for a lawyer at the last minute. Another danger that small business owners run into that could help be avoided by a strong relationship with legal counsel: a small business has insurance coverage to pay or defend a matter. It is possible that you can lose that coverage by taking actions which prejudice your carrier. Many a business has unknowingly prejudiced their carrier and dealt with the consequences of fighting to obtain coverage already purchased. By keeping a close working relationship with your lawyer and not waiting till last minute can save you money and allow your business to bloom.

Regarding the actual attorney-client relationship, getting started correctly is crucial. There is a natural tension between the need for the attorney to learn the case and your costs for the time that takes. Also competing is your desire to be the most important client versus your attorney’s other clients and commitments. The last thing you want is to be in a situation where you are the full time client of the attorney. So what are some things that can effectively deal with these tensions? Again, get the relationship started correctly. Start by addressing these tensions openly and honestly. You should expect to be kept up to date on the case and not surprised with last minute requests. You also should have a good understanding of the strategy and reasons for the attorney’s actions. I think it is particularly helpful to understand the best way for communicating with your attorney. You should ask, “What is helpful versus what is over the top? How long does it take to return phone calls?” Frequent phone calls can be distracting and expensive and are often the result from the attorney and client not getting on the same page from day one. So do yourself and your business a favor and ask these upfront and ensure both sides are on the same page.

Turning to your role as an effective teacher of the facts, you are often the person who knows the most about the situation. After finding out from your attorney if it would be helpful, preparing a good timeline and package of key documents can be crucial. Have some patience while your attorney learns the facts. However, be careful to only talk to people and prepare documents that your attorney requests. You can make the mistake of waiving the attorney-client privilege. Talk to no one about your communications with your attorney unless the attorney specifically approves. The point: be involved early and consider yourself a partner in getting the attorney up to speed. Be available for your attorney.

Another matter deserving separate treatment is the hidden thing that worries you. Perhaps it is an arrest from years ago. Perhaps it is a medical issue, a bankruptcy or prior lawsuit. Perhaps it is a contract you feel stupid about signing or a letter you want back. Tell your attorney now. Most matters will be non-issues if you timely disclose them. And if they are crucial, better to deal with them now. These things do not get better with time, are usually irrelevant and are almost always discovered. Surprises damage cases and throw lawyers into tailspins. You don’t want your own lawyer in a tailspin.

An issue to deal with up front is billing. You should pay your bills, but you should also have basic understanding of both what and why you will be incurring the expense. Discuss this up front. Understand what to expect as well as what descriptions you will get on the bill. Consider setting an amount that will require prior approval from you. However, like most issues there is a balance between being an intelligent consumer of legal services and being a client who questions everything. Early discussion and communication is much better than monthly bills that surprise and distract. You can expect and demand communication and fairness, but avoid the temptation to blame your lawyer for the lawsuit or situation.

Let me leave you with a final thought: It is my experience you are best served by a prepared, communicative lawyer but not one who is emotionally attached to your case. Don’t demand that the lawyer be as angry as you. Don’t fault him for talking to the other lawyer. An angry lawyer often ends up costing you more in discovery fights and childish banter. You are better served by calm professional advice, even when it is not what you want to see or hear.

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