What to expect from the beginning of your case

Any litigation is a lot like the old military adage, “you hurry up to wait.” Sometimes all you will hear is the sound of chirping crickets, and then suddenly there is a great commotion when your attorney will need you to answer questions (we’ll discuss discovery later), or get ready for a deposition, or to prepare for mediation, or to prepare for a hearing. Generally, when an attorney needs your assistance with your case, your attorney needs it rather quickly. The quicker you respond, the better it is for your case. Again, you will hurry up to wait.

How often should you contact your attorney? I recommend that you drop your attorney an email fourteen days after you retain your attorney to ask if your attorney needs anything from you, and thereafter you should contact your attorney monthly. Email is often the best way to contact your attorney because an attorney can respond to a status request while multitasking. Often, I sit in court waiting for my case to be called, and I am able to return emails while waiting. You may say, “but I believe in the old fashioned face-to-face or the personal contact of a telephone conversation.” I am happy to do those for clients who prefer that means of communication, but in-person meetings and telephone calls are often like Thanksgiving dinner—it feels good at the moment, but later you’re miserable. When you get the attorney’s invoice for time spent on your case, it is easy to see why email (while not as personal) is much more cost-effective and efficient.

I’ll never forget Kathy. She liked the face-to-face and the telephone calls, but she made it clear at the beginning of the case that she had limited funds. I tried explaining to her that frequent telephone calls and meetings were costing her significant fees, but she didn’t listen. We had three in-person meetings and twelve phone calls (all initiated by her) before we even had the first hearing scheduled. Perhaps the conversations were cathartic for her, but they were also very costly. Essentially, she had blown through much of her retainer and racked up about six hours of billable time on unproductive conversations. That was nearly $2,000 of time on unproductive activity.

You see, when there is an in-person meeting, a client has a natural inclination to fill that time with questions and discussion—even when much of the discussion does little to improve the chances of prevailing on the case. Also, when there are multiple meetings and telephone conversations, there is also a tendency to be duplicative—covering the same ground over and over again.

Most of the time, the questions that a client has are all prospective in nature. What do I mean by that? The most common question I hear essentially involves, “What should I expect next?” Or I will receive the “what if…” questions. Understand this about your lawyer, your lawyer is not a prophet and generally does not have a crystal ball. Your attorney often cannot give you details about the future because your attorney cannot know what the future holds. Unless your attorney is clairvoyant, your attorney cannot know what the other side is thinking and what the other side is going to do next…until they do it.

That said, I can anticipate what the other side will likely do, argue, and ask. Nonetheless, these are simply educated guesses until it actually happens. For certain, I can easily spend hours of the client’s time preparing for what may never actually occur. Nevertheless, I believe it best to save the client’s attorney fee dollars on what I know, not spend their fees preparing for what I can only guess. My recommendation is to save your attorney fee dollars for addressing issues as they occur and trusting your attorney to effectively handle situations that arise…when they arise…not weeks and months before.

Once again, it is similar to the surgeon analogy. Your surgeon can tell you what he/she plans to do, what the risks are, and generally what you can expect. But your surgeon knows that every human body is unique and responds differently to various medical procedures. You don’t spend hours and hours discussing with your surgeon what the remote possibilities of the procedure are. You don’t spend time asking what size scalpel your surgeon will use. You don’t spend time discussing what brand of gloves and scrubs your surgeon will don during the surgery. You trust your surgeon to effectively complete the surgery in a way that ensures optimal results. Following the surgery, you follow your surgeon’s post-operative instructions for continue that best possible result.

I’m tickled when I listen to pharmaceutical commercials. They spend half of the thirty-second commercial listing the “rare but serious side-affects” while depicting happy people who obviously have not experienced these side-affects. You’ve heard it before, “Patients who take this medication may experience rare but serious side-affects including diarrhea, constipation, severe headaches, shortness of breath, and cardiac arrest…if you experience any of these, contact your doctor immediately.” No thanks, I’ll just take an aspirin and call my doctor in the morning.

Obviously, these side-affects are rare. Obviously, if the medication is right for you, it may be worth the risk of the rare side-affects. And, of course, simply knowing about these side-affects will not prevent side-affects from occurring. Just remember the obvious when taking any medication…if you experience serious side-affects, call your doctor. Most people don’t need a thirty-second disclaimer to understand this commonsense response to a serious medical condition.

It is the same way with your attorney and your case. You can spend hours of time talking about what could (but may never) happen on the case. You can spend hours of time discussing in excruciating detail every rule and procedure involved in the process. You can spend hours of time simply hanging out with your attorney…and feel really good about that…until you get the bill. But my advice is to provide your attorney the information covered in Chapter 3 above. Ask questions about unique situations and circumstances in which you must make an immediate decision, i.e. whether you should pay the next car payment, whether you should leave the state with the kids, whether you should move to your sister’s house, etc. Leave the “what could happen next” out of discussions as much as you can stand to. Contact your attorney only when it is an important, pressing matter. That is the best way to save time and money.

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