How to Talk to a Lawyer
How to Talk to a Lawyer
If you’re not a lawyer, it’s not easy to talk to lawyers. Even if you are a lawyer, it can be hard to talk to other lawyers. Lawyers use strange words like res ipsa loquitur and caveat emptor and habeas corpus, words that non-lawyers rarely, if ever, use or hear in everyday conversations. How are you supposed to know what to tell a lawyer when you meet in her office? Heck, how do you even know how to begin the conversation? Do you just sit down and start talking? Does the lawyer just start asking you questions? Who talks first? What do I need to tell the lawyer? What if I leave something out? What if I say something stupid? What if the lawyer uses words I don’t understand? All of these are good questions that need to be answered before you first contact a lawyer.
In a recent article on one of my favorite web sites, lifehacker.com, the authors recommend that “[w]hen you make that first call to a prospective lawyer, you need to have a much information as possible at the ready.”
I agree wholeheartedly. I will go one step further and say that it is better to have too much information available than not enough. If you believe a letter that you got in the mail may be important to your situation, have that letter in front of you when you make the first call. If you believe that a particular traffic citation is important to your situation, have that citation in front of you. Such documents may contain crucial facts that the lawyer needs to know.
Elizabeth Unrath and Raad Ahmed, authors of “How to Talk to a Lawyer (and When You Need One),” give the following advice:
Once you’ve found a lawyer you’re comfortable working with, lay all your cards on the table.
I could not agree more! Tell your lawyer the whole truth!
Your lawyer is not there to judge you or criticize you. Your lawyer is there to help you. Don’t hinder your lawyer’s ability to help you by lying or misrepresenting facts. If you exchanged marijuana for cash, tell your lawyer. If you printed counterfeit money, tell your lawyer. If you ran the red light, tell your lawyer. Your lawyer is not going to turn you in to the police. In fact, lawyers cannot even be subpoenaed or forced to testify about the things that you say to your lawyer. Such communications are protected by the attorney-client privilege, which is probably the most powerful level of confidentiality in this country. Tell your lawyer everything. Let your lawyer decide which facts to use to help you and which facts not to use.
It is important to tell your story in a way that the lawyer can follow and understand the first time. In his blog, and restated in the article by Unrath and Ahmed, Timothy Sandefur offers the following advice:
[M]ake sure to tell your story chronologically, completing every thought before moving on to the next.
Chronological stories are easier to follow and to remember. Don’t complicate things by jumping around from 2002 to 2013 and back to 2005. Better yet, write down a time-line of events and bring it to your first meeting with the lawyer. It doesn’t have to be fine art. You won’t be graded on it. Just write the important events on a piece of paper, vertically or horizontally, in chronological order. Arriving with a properly prepared, written time-line will save a lot of your time and the lawyer’s time.
Don’t expect the lawyer to you’re your mind and know what you want to discuss. You are responsible for knowing what you want to discuss and for letting your lawyer know what you want to discuss. Write down specific questions for your lawyer, or make an outline of what you want to discuss with your lawyer before you meet with her. Be prepared!
Finally, the State Bar of Arizona’s web site contains a terrific guide with tips on how to talk to your lawyer and includes questions you may want to ask your lawyer, a discussion of “who’s who in a law office,” and ways to reduce costs and fees.