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Robert S. Duxstad
Daniel P. Bestul
Lance A. McNaughton

The Good Client: Helping Your Lawyer Help You

Posted: 7.31.2013  |  Author: 

There are plenty of books, articles and TV ads giving advice on how to find the “right” lawyer for your needs. While many of these are helpful, many leave out one important piece of the puzzle – your job as a client.

 

Working with an attorney is a genuine relationship, requiring mutual trust, understanding and cooperation. While plenty of folks have tried to define what makes a “good lawyer”, few have taken the time to try to define what makes a “good client”. It is hard to define with precision, but there are a few things you can do to be a “good client.”

 

Understand privilege and confidentiality

 

Privilege and confidentialityare two closely related concepts. They help the attorney do the best possible job for the client. Conversations and meetings between a lawyer and client are private matters, and, generally speaking, a lawyer cannot be forced to tell anyone what goes on in these meetings. This means the client and lawyer can talk about difficult and potentially damaging topics. Knowing the full story – not just the favorable parts – is vital to good advice and representation.

 

Most people aren't comfortable with being totally frank and honest, but when talking with your attorney, it is essential. People often think that if the lawyer knows all the details, he or she won’t take the case. In nearly every instance, this is not true. Lawyers help people with all kinds of problems. Very few refuse to help a client who presents a very difficult case, but, there are circumstances where a lawyer is required to withdraw from representing a client if the lawyer learns the client has not provided all the details about things. It is very difficult to represent someone who has a hard time telling the truth. There’s nothing an attorney hates more than being “sandbagged” by information popping up unexpectedly, leaving the attorney scrambling to control the damage.

 

Years ago, a TV lawyer told his client “Facts are bullets; don’t make me an unarmed man.” It was, and is, good advice.

 

Expect to hear the truth

 

Clients come to see lawyers in difficult times, and they are often looking for support and encouragement. While we will do our best for you, do not expect a lawyer to be a cheerleader. Just as we need to know the good as well as the bad, we also have to tell you the good along with the bad. If your matter involves litigation, that will include talking about why things will not turn out the way you hope.

 

Always take the high road

 

Legal matters – especially those involving litigation – bring out the worst in people. Clients often feel frustrated, harassed, and a whole host of other feelings they ordinarily don’t experience. The client may become angry at the other party and, especially, the other side’s lawyer. Regardless of how the other side acts, good clients show respect.

 

It may be tempting to engage in “dirty tricks”, especially if the other side is playing that way. However, doing so may do irreparable damage to the case. It’s hard to sit there and take it while the other side accuses you of everything under the sun, hits you with unsupported charges, lies and cheats, but the chances are overwhelming that the truth will come out and in the long run. Judges don’t like that kind of behavior, and it’s a judge’s job to deal with it. Don’t try take matters into your own hands.

 

Remember, your attorney has to deal with the other side, and if you act like a jerk, you and your attorney are likely to be treated the same way. You don’t have to be friendly or cordial to the other side, only civil.

 

Be flexible

 

People don’t like to be wrong, and many clients want a judge or jury to tell them they were right all along. However, nobody can predict with absolute certainty what the court will decide in any given case. Two different judges can hear the exact same evidence and come up with different results. In court, you take your chances, and you never know for certain what will happen.

 

Because of this, most cases never actually go to court; instead, the parties negotiate a settlement. It is usually best to settle out of court, because you control the final outcome, and can often do so at a much lower cost than going to trial. The chances of negotiating a satisfactory result are greatly increased if you define your goals as broadly as possible, and avoid locking yourself into narrow and inflexible positions.

 

An example: In a family law case, it is not unusual for a client to say, in the very first meeting, that they want placement where the children alternate weeks with each parent, but the other parent has refused to agree. A more detailed discussion with the parent may uncover that the children are involved in an activity that is very important to the other parent that same night every week, and if they alternate weeks, the parent will miss that important activity every other week. Defining the goal more broadly – spending as much time as possible with the children, and keeping things as close as possible to the way they were before the parents separated – may provide the opportunity to negotiate agreements that actually provide each parent with more time, and more significant time, than what they would have received with the alternating week arrangement.

 

Communicate

 

The lawyer works for you. However, you must discuss what your goals are and what you want the end results to be.

While the client sets the goals, the attorney chooses the means of accomplishing those goals. In most cases, the client will agree with the attorney’s recommendation. If you really feel that a different course of action would be better, by all means say so. Tell your lawyer why you think your approach to the issue is better, and ask him or her to explain the advantages and disadvantages of your approach, as well as the one he or she has recommended.

 

Do your homework

 

The more legwork you do and the more information you can supply your attorney, the better he can do his job. Right from the start, good clients are involved in their case. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your attorney knows everything and that he can make the best decision on every issue.

 

By the same token, if your lawyer asks you to provide him with documents – bank statements, telephone bills, car titles, deeds, loan documents, tax records; the list can go on seemingly forever – make sure you track them down.

 

Lawyers are, by nature and by training, a cautious and suspicious bunch, and we usually demand proof that what you say is true. We also know that the attorney on the other side will treat you that way, and so having documentation to back up what you say can save a lot of time and expense, and may be the difference between reaching your goals or falling short.

 

While it is always okay to ask why the information is needed, do not take it upon yourself to decide whether you need to provide it. There are times when the failure to provide information can be fatal. If the lawyer asks for it, get it.

 

Be patient

 

While your case is no doubt very important to your lawyer, it is not the only one he or she is handling. There may be times when you call the office, and your lawyer will not be available to take your call; and it may take a while to get back to you. If the lawyer isn’t in when you call, you may want to set up a specific time for a return call. While it may take a little longer for him to get back to you than if you leave a “call whenever” message, you will have the comfort of knowing exactly when the call will come.

 

Most clients are surprised with how long it takes a legal mater to move through the system. You can, of course, always speed things along by simply giving the other side anything he or she wants, but that is seldom a satisfactory resolution. It is far better to take the time to do things right; that’s one of the big reasons you have a lawyer on your side.

 

Don’t believe everything you hear

 

Good clients don’t believe everything they hear. Lots of people will have an opinion about how your case should be handled, or what the result should be. Everybody knows someone who had a case “just like yours”.

 

While these people may be trying to help you, the reality is every individual is different, every lawyer is different, and every case is different. Even a small difference in circumstances can make a big difference in the outcome of your legal matter. It is a mistake to assume that your case is “just like” someone else’s.

 

Don’t set unrealistic expectations

 

Most often, people need a lawyer because they are dealing with a conflict. You want things to turn out a certain way; most likely the other side does not want it to turn out the same way. We will do our best to accomplish your goals, and the attorney for the other side will be doing the same for his or her client.

 

We are not magicians, and can’t bend judges or the other side to our will. We work with the law, and with the facts.

 

Lawyers help people through difficult times, and getting involved in a legal dispute is always stressful. Following these simple suggestions can make a huge difference in reducing the stress, and get you better results. Being a good client makes good sense.

 

Dan Bestul is a Wisconsin divorce and family law attorney practicing primarily in Green and Lafayette Counties. He can be reached by e-mail at bestul@duxstadlaw.com.

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