10 Ways to Be a Better Client to Your Lawyer (and Cut Down Your Legal Bill)
It’s true that lawyers have a duty to act in their clients’ best interests, whether they like them or not. So why should you care how to be a better client to your lawyer?
The answer is simple.
If you make your lawyer’s job easier, your matter is more likely to turn out the way you want. This is because:
- If your lawyer doesn’t have to struggle to deal with you or your work, the path to success is clearer and more predictable.
- Plus, if you endear yourself to a good lawyer, the lawyer becomes invested in your success. He/she is more likely to call in personal favours and leverage his/her network to advance your interests.
Even if none of this happens, being easy to work with will at least help your lawyer do your work faster and more accurately, and leave you with a smaller legal bill at the end of it.
If you want this, try these 10 tips.
1. Be on time
Whether it’s a scheduled phone call, meeting, court appointment or deadline to send documents or comments, if you say you’re going to be somewhere or do something at a certain time, be there or do it by that time.
If you know you’re going to be late, let your lawyer know as soon as you find out. In the legal industry, time is literally money and lawyers often have a full day of meetings. If you show up 20 minutes late for a 30-minute meeting, that either pushes a very nice lawyer’s whole day back by 20 minutes, or means that you will only have 10 minutes with your lawyer that day.
Don’t be the client who thinks it’s okay to show up at 3 pm for a 12 pm appointment without calling in advance, and then gets surprised to be greeted by a fuming lawyer or simply turned away at the reception. You don’t want to be that person.
And you certainly don’t want to show up late for a court appointment, because then you’ll have an embarrassed lawyer and an angry judge to deal with!
2. Write concisely and in chronological order
When writing to a lawyer to explain your situation or give instructions, keep it short. Lawyers are busy and don’t have time to read through Homer’s Odyssey just to find out what you want.
Use punctuation and complete your sentences. It is often a good idea to write in bullet points, one bullet point for each thought.
If you are telling a story, start at the beginning and present each fact in chronological order. Don’t jump around the timeline.
Explain who each person in the story is and refer to them by name every single time. For example, instead of:
“My husband’s brother-in-law met my godfather at the airport. He gave him a red suitcase and then boarded his flight.”,
“My husband’s brother-in-law, Jeff, met my godfather, Andy, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Andy gave Jeff a red suitcase and then Jeff boarded his flight to Singapore.”
The longer and more meandering your explanation, the more likely you are to be misunderstood, the longer it takes to understand your explanation and the bigger your legal bill gets.
3. Always have a clear agenda
Whenever you write to your lawyer, decide beforehand what you want from your lawyer and don’t forget to ask for it.
Sometimes, emails to lawyers can go along the following lines:
“My husband is abusive and also he is cheating on me. He often shouts at me and yesterday he broke some plates. I hope you can help me.”
This kind of email does not make it clear what the writer wants. It should end by setting out what the writer wants from the lawyer.
“I would like to speak to you about [getting a divorce / getting a personal protection order / suing my husband for assault / how to keep my husband away from my children / how to legally kick my husband out of our home / etc.]”
4. Be proactive in gathering information relevant to your matter
Don’t wait for your lawyer to think of information that might be relevant to your matter. Start compiling it yourself first. Even if your lawyer decides it’s useless later, no harm has been done.
Take a dispute where you are alleging certain facts, for example. Think strategically about how you can prove every fact you are saying is true.
For example, did you get involved in a traffic accident? Go back to the scene and take photos of it from various angles before the layout of the area changes, as it so often does in Singapore. Maybe you’ll even spot some CCTV cameras that might have helpful footage.
Start thinking outside the box about what records exist that can prove a fact that is relevant to your case. If you can arm your lawyer with that, you are empowering him/her to be a more effective advocate for your interests.
5. Keep copies of everything
Lawyers love it when clients can prove every material fact which their case relies on with some kind of documentary evidence.
Even better if you have it in soft copy and can just email it.
6. If your matter is document-heavy, organise
If you have a huge stack of documents that you hate the thought of sifting through, your lawyer probably feels the same way.
Your lawyer will do it if you don’t, but you will be charged accordingly and you certainly won’t endear yourself to him/her. Save yourself the cost and make your lawyer happy in the process.
Before handing your documents to your lawyer, sort through and categorise them in some logical way, whether chronologically, alphabetically or thematically. Store them neatly, whether in labelled physical folders or in soft copy in labelled digital folders. Add an index naming each document in order.
Now you have just empowered your lawyer to hit the ground running and get down to real legal work immediately.
7. Contact your lawyer only when necessary
If your lawyer is kind enough to provide a mobile phone number, don’t abuse that privilege. Only call when you really need to, and on weekends only if it really can’t wait until Monday.
If your lawyer can’t answer, don’t take it personally. He/she may be busy trying to get your work or another client’s work done, especially if the work can only be done without interruption.
Send a brief message explaining what you want and how urgent it is, and your lawyer should get back to you. Don’t be the client who interrupts a lawyer’s well-earned Saturday night out or Sunday morning lie-in, expecting to discuss something relatively trivial that could easily be dealt with in a 2-line email on Monday.
8. Don’t communicate with any counter-party directly and don’t write publicly about your matter
Nothing can undo a lawyer’s good work more quickly and with more devastation than a client publishing something online that helps an adverse party, or communicating certain information to adverse parties without the lawyer’s knowledge.
It is very difficult for a lawyer to come up with a strategy that best advances your interests without knowing what you have shared with the other party. Therefore after engaging your lawyer, share every relevant exchange of information you have ever had with a relevant party with your lawyer.
Also, once your lawyer has come on board, you should pass the burden of communication with your counter-party entirely to your lawyer. After all, this is part of the service you are paying for. It also manages the risk of you saying something you weren’t supposed to, or agreeing to something you shouldn’t have.
It is also important for you and your lawyer to agree on the things that should remain confidential. Sometimes, what that actually means in practice can be complex, so the best policy is never to write anything about your matter publicly.
If an adverse party contacts you directly to try to negotiate or if a journalist asks you questions, the appropriate response is to let them speak to your lawyer. Anything you say can be used against you and you hired a lawyer to manage this risk for you. Let your lawyer do just that.
9. Be clear about who your lawyer is authorised to deal with
If you are a company, you need to make it explicitly clear which officers within your company are authorised to instruct your lawyer, and/or to receive confidential information regarding your legal matter.
As a matter of data protection and risk management, having a single point of contact within the company to the lawyer is ideal and minimises the risk of confidential information about your company’s legal affairs leaking to the public.
If you are an individual, your lawyer may only take instructions from and give updates to you, the client. This is unless you have specifically authorised the lawyer to share confidential information about your legal matter with someone else. Such authority should ideally be given to your lawyer in writing.
If you have not given such authorisation, the lawyer will not be able to give updates about your case to your mother, your wife, your granny or your cousin’s best friend’s mother-in-law’s dog sitter. This is not because your lawyer is being difficult, but because your lawyer is bound by solicitor-client privilege unless and until you explicitly waive it.
10. Listen to your lawyer
You have engaged a lawyer to provide you with legal advice and represent your interests. Therefore when your lawyer gives you legal advice, recognise that this is a professional opinion coming from someone who has specialised knowledge of the law. Since it is also exactly what you are paying for, give it due consideration.
That said, whether you ultimately accept or reject the advice is up to you alone, based on your – and not your lawyer’s – personal or commercial interests. Once you have conveyed your decision to the lawyer, it is his/her job to take your instructions and represent your interests as you have deemed fit. This is also what you are paying for.
If the lawyer disagrees so strongly with your decision that he/she refuses to carry out your instructions (assuming they are legal and ethical), find another lawyer who will.
If you follow these 10 commandments, you should expect to enjoy an excellent working relationship with your lawyer, and that can only have positive consequences.
Not just on the outcome of your matter, but also on your wallet.
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