Updated: Jun 25, 2019
Working as a legal secretary prior to becoming an attorney, I was a fly on the wall observing lawyers and clients in their natural habitats as well as in the courtroom. But despite any glowing attorney performance in the courtroom, twenty minutes later a client may be left feeling burned by the overall relationship.
Just as in any partnership, the key to success seems to be communication. But how are you supposed to know how much communication is enough? What makes it effective? In case you didn't major in mind-reading at university, allow me to share—and hopefully help to resolve—a couple of the major complaints I've witnessed between lawyers and clients.
She Doesn't Answer Your Calls. This is absolutely—by far—the number one complaint I have heard from clients about their attorneys. Interestingly, there are some basic reasons why an attorney doesn't answer or return a call, and very few of those reasons are related to the attorney just plain sucking. Before you give in to frustration, cut ties, or even make a bar complaint, consider (or even ask) whether one of these is true:
You didn't leave an adequate message. Perhaps you didn't leave enough information to tie the message to an existing matter, and the lawyer isn't taking new matters right now. Make sure you have left your name (and any other names your matter might be tied to), your contact information, and specifically what you are calling about. Include a case number, if you have it. If you are facing a deadline, say what it is and when. Do you have a question, or are you passing along information to answer the lawyer's questions? It makes a difference.
The attorney didn’t get the message. Did you talk to a person? Was that person a receptionist, a temp, an answering service, or a paralegal? In any event, the attorney may simply not know that you expected a call back. Try two times, at least.
You left a message that was so good that the attorney doesn't need to talk to you. Maybe you followed the preceding advice, and the lawyer simply has no follow up questions. She might simply be saving you a few bucks by taking note of your message "offline." Consider asking the secretary whether the lawyer needs anything further from you, or even shoot an email or portal communication to the lawyer asking the same thing.
Her talking to you would create a conflict. Perhaps something has changed which prevents her from helping you with this case. Strict ethical rules for attorneys mean that they have to closely monitor whom they take on as clients and on what matters they will help. It might seem simple for her to pick up the phone and say "Sorry, I have a conflict," but the attorney might be afraid of creating even an appearance of conflict, depending on how high the stakes are.
You owe the attorney money. Do you have an existing (old) bill you haven't paid, or perhaps a retainer you never topped up? A lawyer's time is usually not free, so a client who has failed to pay in the past may fall at the end of the line when it comes to returning calls. Determine your balance, come current, and try again. In the end, it may be more efficient to pay your existing bill than to go out and start fresh with a new attorney (who also will expect to be paid).
The attorney is no longer covering your matter. Maybe you had a public defender and their assignment was limited by the court; or maybe you had an associate in a firm who has moved on or been shifted to other types of cases. If you have an open case, check with the Clerk of the Court to see whether this attorney is still your attorney of record. And if you did have a public defender, note that their directives sometimes include keeping costs low for both you and the taxpayers, so if you've fallen into an above category (e.g. the lawyer needs no further information at this time), you might not hear back unless and until the attorney needs something from you.
The attorney is busy or out of the office and simply cannot get to you in your time frame. This one may be obvious, but attorneys do not move at the same speed as life. From day one as an attorney, we learn to adjust our internal clocks to the court's time—not to human time. They say, "the wheels of justice turn slowly." Keep in mind that lawyers and judges are the ones turning the wheels. What might seem urgent to a client could seem low-priority to the attorney because she can project its resolution or a way to minimize it. Lawyers will have weeks where it seems everything is on fire; so, if your matter is currently shooting sparks, the hose will get around to you when the fires have been extinguished.
She Talks in a Language You Don't Understand. YUCK when your lawyer talks in jargon or concepts that are unfamiliar to you. This happens in many industries, but lawyers are probably the worst offenders. They sit us down on day one of law school and teach us to use big Latin words and to feel self-important. (Not really, but this might as well be true.) I really should be lecturing the lawyer here, but there are a few ways you can help yourself here as a client.
She sends you a notice to do something, but you don't understand what. First, ask the attorney at the outset of your case for a basic rundown of what will occur. Ask her to explain what each type of hearing is. Where will it be held? Who will be there? Will I be asked questions? What do you need from me before, during, and after the hearing? Second, use the attorney's support staff to answer basic questions. A non-attorney assistant or receptionist will generally speak plainly and will be able to tell you what a notice means. (If they can't, have them ask the attorney and get back to you.) Finally, don't be afraid to Google things . . . but make sure you are looking at the right jurisdiction and the right type of case. Federal civil procedure won't do you much good when you are facing a local traffic ticket, even if some of the terms seem similar.
Enough with the Latin words already! Sometimes even English-sounding words are used out of any familiar context. What is discovery? What are "elements"? What do you mean by a consent order? It really does seem like lawyers have no clue how to "speak regular," doesn't it? I hate to say it, but you as the client must own this one and throw a flag on the play when a lawyer begins using terms you don't understand. Why is this, you ask? Because lawyers work with clients at all levels of knowledge: other lawyers, sophisticated businesspeople, experienced plaintiffs or defendants, and longtime clients. If you are a newbie—or new to this particular scenario—then you need to tell your lawyer this is new territory. Ask him to stop and define a word in simple terms. Ask him to give examples. My favorite phrase is "talk to me like I'm five." If you allow the lawyer to talk over your head, the only one who will suffer is you—and you are the paying customer in this relationship! You could end up signing things you shouldn't, or losing out on a fair solution.
What just happened in there?? Sometimes clients walk out of court and have no idea what occurred. Lawyers and judges often use odd procedures and behave like actors in a play—albeit a very boring play with poor acting. Ask not only about the words, but what was happening under the surface that you might have missed. For example, some hearings have formal components that happen "on the record," but the reality of what the lawyers agreed to behind closed doors is what will affect you. Insist that your lawyer takes a few moments to unpack all of it for you. If they don't have time at the close of the hearing, ask for the next available appointment slot.
Obviously, there are a lot of ways for an attorney-client partnership to go off the rails; but there are just as many ways for it to be mutually satisfying and beneficial. I aim to help make the latter happen, even if you aren't my client. Take it from this fly on the wall: it doesn’t take a mind-reader to get the most out of this relationship.