By Kelly A. Bennett, Esq.
You’ve had a rocky relationship with your [divorce/business/real estate/bankruptcy…you name it] attorney and, well…you got “fired”. Now you’re about to retain another lawyer who really has it together. You really like the new Attorney, but you’re white-knuckling it, hoping that this relationship will last. OK, let’s be real: You can’t keep doing the same messed-up stuff and expect a different result. It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and own up to the drama and dysfunction… and decide to make a massive change. Because let’s face it, lawyers are people too (and so are their staff members). So, if you want a shot at inspiring your new hot-shot Attorney to really pour on the steam and go to bat for you, it’s time to turn up the (positive) heat on the relationship. Think of it as an extended honeymoon period (lasting as long as your case does).
Below, some ideas about what Attorney-infuriating behaviors to give up.
1. Going AWOL on your Attorney.
AWOL (“Absent Without Leave”) is a military term for deserters. Sometimes it’s tempting to associate your Attorney with the unhappy legal problems they are handling for you. Keep in mind, your Attorney didn’t create the problem. Instead, picture your Attorney as your “super-hero” (yep I know, very corny). Visualize your Attorney wearing a cape and blue tights, if you have to… Just don’t ignore phone and email messages from your Attorney’s office! The more responsive you are to your Attorney, the more effective your Attorney will be for you.
2. Refusing to follow your Attorney’s advice.
You may feel a bit overwhelmed and emotional about your legal issues. Don’t let your emotions lead you around by the nose. When your Attorney gives you advice – follow it. After all, that’s what you’re paying the “big bucks” for – solid legal advice (don’t throw it in the gutter). Resist the temptation to substitute your own (emotional) judgment for your Attorney’s judgment. Remember, while your case may be a new situation for you, your rock-star Attorney has seen that case a zillion times – and knows the most probable outcome. Cast-away your Attorney’s advice, and your legal problems (and bills) are likely to double with all the new problems you’re creating for your Attorney to fix.
3. Robo-calling your Attorney.
Some folks get really aggravated that their attorney is in court and not available the minute they call…and so they call and call and call (to discuss one item at a time). Let’s challenge that thinking: Isn’t it a good sign that your Attorney is focused and busy? If your case involves going to court…don’t you want a lawyer who’s in court a lot, and really good at talking to a judge? Yes, you do! If your Attorney is focused on a project for another client when you call – isn’t that good to know that the Attorney gives his or her undivided attention to your case when working on it? It’s smart to let the Attorney’s staff be the go-betweens (and saves a lot of money, too). Send the Attorney’s assistant an email with a short, concise outline of the items you’d like to discuss. Then schedule a phone or office conference. Get on your Attorney’s schedule and you’ll make the most out of your Attorney’s time (and alleviate the frustrations of playing phone tag).
4. Refusing to read your Attorney’s bills.
No one likes getting bills and no one likes having legal problems. But bury your head when it comes to the financial side of your case and you’ll be on the fast-track to a failed Attorney-Client relationship. Read your billing invoices the minute you get them and ask questions. (Hint: A great law firm will detail the work completed…and the invoice should read like a “story” of how your case is progressing.) The “nightmare” clients are those who refuse to open their bills, don’t pay attention to the work being done on the case, and then later ask “what have you done for me?”
5. Complaining when your Attorney goes on vacation.
Are you put out when you learn that your Attorney is leaving for a long vacation? Maybe you are a work-a-holic, but work-a-holism and great legal work don’t make good bedfellows. Great Attorneys must take time off. Consider the stress you feel about your legal problem and multiply that by 10 (or however many cases your Attorney is carrying). You want an Attorney who engages in regular self-care and mental health breaks (aka vacays). Stress is a HUGE problem in the legal field. Attorneys are at extreme risk for alcohol and other drug abuse and burnout. Don’t believe me? Check out the stats in this article I wrote on this very subject: Why You Should Be Glad Your Lawyer Is On Vacation
6. Dumping “Hater-ade” on your Attorney’s staff.
Regardless of how upset you are about your legal issues, resist the temptation to “dump” on your Attorney’s staff members. Going through a nasty divorce? Don’t make the paralegals the target of your unhappiness (remember, they didn’t marry the guy…). Great Attorneys don’t allow their clients to be abusive to the legal support team. That’s how you wind up with no Attorney. Instead, choose to view your Attorney’s staff like the valuable support team of a #1 race car driver. You don’t want to beat up the people who maintain the race car, swap out the tires and fuel up the driver when they come in for a pit-stop. They are part of the high-performance crew that makes up your elite legal team. You want to keep those engines revving.
7. Stopping by without an appointment.
“Dropping in” on your Attorney is one of the least productive moves you can make. You want your Attorney and support team to allocate time for you, and to be prepared for you (and not burn billable hours). Dropping in on an attorney is like dropping in on a surgeon. Call ahead and make an appointment. You wouldn’t expect a brain surgeon to step out of the O.R. for you – don’t expect your Attorney to do the same.
8. Not paying your bill.
Our culture paints lawyers as super wealthy and living the high life. Reality is, your Attorney likely pays all the support staff (who work on your case), the rent, the malpractice insurance, the light bills, etc. before they pay themselves. If you’ve ever been successfully self-employed, you understand the concept that the “leader eats last.” Running a law firm is expensive. When you ignore your Attorney’s bills, the rub is on. Want to really up the burn? Don’t pay your bill and continue to demand more work. Remember, most Attorneys sell their time for a living. Make sure you are paying your bills on time. Establish open communication with your Attorney about all the charges on the bill – and keep that relationship “solid.”
9. Treating your Attorney or the support staff like your therapist.
You want to tell your Attorney everything going on that relates to your case. A rock-star Attorney will give you very good advice – that’s why we’re often called “Attorneys and Counselors at Law.” However, your Attorney (or their paralegal staff) is not a substitute for a shrink. When dealing with a difficult legal problem (super common in family law cases, personal injury or elder cases), it’s always a good idea to start seeing a therapist to help keep your thinking healthy. Neither your Attorney nor his/her staff are equipped to give you psychological counseling like a therapist. Confusing your Attorney’s keen ability to give you some practical, common sense advice (wrapped in compassion and empathy) can be a costly mistake. Pay a therapist for emotional support – not a high-priced Attorney.
What you shouldn’t give up…ever.
Open and honest communications with your Attorney and a “glass half full” outlook on your future. Remember, you hired that rock-star Attorney for a reason…lean on her, or him…and know that you’re in great hands.