I Hate Lawyers
by Megan Costello
Ok, maybe not all of them, considering I am one, but I hate to hire lawyers and I hate to have to rely and depend on them.
I practiced law for eight years and felt I was fairly diligent in tending to my clients. I succeeded in returning client phone calls and responding to client e-mails within 24 hours. When I said I would get an answer to a question, I worked to get the answer to the question as quickly as possible, and I made sure that the answer I gave the client actually addressed the question he or she asked. I also thought that what I was doing was not anything special, and that this is what one does for one’s clients; this is how it works.
Until very recently, I never needed personal legal advice. In the past year, I have had more experiences than I would have liked being the client of a lawyer. Last December, my mother was killed in a small plane crash in Florida. As the personal representative for her estate, I hired an estate attorney and an aviation litigator. Also, a very close friend of mine is in the middle of a particularly nasty divorce in California, so I have been able to share in his anguish and frustration over lawyers.
Given my experiences with my mother’s estate, I can tell you that I feel lucky I did not need a lawyer before now. Most of the time, I feel like I am in a fog bank with a dearth of information. I send e-mails that do not get answered for weeks (if at all), forcing me to repeatedly resend my questions. On those occasions when my lawyers give me information, I am seemingly blinded by the sunlight of clarity for a while and forget my previous frustration. Within a week or so, I am back to fumbling around. Sadly, I consider myself lucky because I am a lawyer, so I have the ability and resources to try to find information on my own and to ask direct questions. I cannot imagine how bad it would be if I were a lay person completely dependent on my attorney’s capricious and meager hand-outs of information — which is the position my friend is in.
You may be saying to yourselves, "Why don’t you just fire the lawyer?" I would love to, but the estate is virtually insolvent, so I believe it would be extremely difficult (if at all possible) to find someone to take on the case with the virtual certainty that he or she would get paid very little. In the case of my friend and his divorce attorney, he did fire his first attorney at my urging, and now has one that is markedly improved from the last one (though still less than ideal).
You also may be saying to yourselves, "Well, those lawyers are in other states; we do not practice that way." Perhaps, but perhaps not. I think it is important to put your ego and pride aside and think critically about how you are conducting your practice and whether you could be doing a little better. Granted, you probably have heard all of these suggestions before, but I think they deserve repeating.
1. ANSWER the phone and answer the e-mail, whatever it takes to make your client know that you exist. Even if the answer is: "I don’t know the answer to your question. Give me a couple days to get back to you." Then, put it on your calendar to get back with them in a couple days, even if you still do not know the answer. Let the client know you have not forgotten about them.
2. ANSWER the question. When a client asks you a direct question, answer that direct question with a straightforward answer. For example, the compensation for Florida estate attorneys is statutorily set as a percentage of the value of the estate. The estate attorney is the only one who has the information regarding the claims filed in probate and the assets of the estate. When I ask my attorney, "How much are you entitled to receive as compensation?" I expect him to get out the calculator and give me an actual dollar amount. What I do not want is for him to tell me he is entitled to 3 percent of the estate. That answer is useless to me (it is just telling me what I already know, because it is in the contract) when I do not know the value of the estate. If there are choices or variables, tell the client that, but keep it clear and concise.
3. BE COURTEOUS and follow the Golden Rule. My friend expressed exasperation with his first lawyer when he did not return e-mails and phone calls. The lawyer’s response was, "Gee, I didn’t know you needed this much hand-holding." First, this lawyer didn’t follow Rule #1 above. Second, hand-holding? You bet! That is what you do as lawyers: you guide and assist your client through their legal problems. Do not make your client feel like an idiot or inadequate, or that his/her question is stupid or repetitive. Be patient, take a deep breath, and have a conversation with your client about his/her concerns, even if you feel like you have told him/her a dozen times.
4. ACCOUNT for your time. Even if the agreement with your clients do not require you to itemize your time, mail or e-mail your clients an update every month or every quarter. Let the clients know what you have been doing for the case. This way, they know that despite not talking to them in a while, you are thinking about them and working on the case.
5. REMEMBER that your clients have put their trust in you. They are depending on you to help them and are at your mercy. When you do not answer their questions, e-mails or phone calls, they feel lost, alone and helpless. They already are feeling insecure and upset at the legal issues they are facing; do not add to their angst by making them feel ignored and unworthy of your time.
Dealing with my lawyers certainly has been a wake-up call for me and has made me critically evaluate how I deal with clients and people in general. I hope none of you see yourselves reflected in these comments, but if you do, please do yourself and your client a favor and make changes for the better. Just because your client is not complaining to you does not mean he or she is not complaining about you to everyone else.