When you hire a lawyer, you expect him to know the law and to know what strategy to use in your case. You expect that he is looking out for your interests, to fight hard when appropriate and to advise you when continuing the fight may not be productive.
But how do you know if you have hired the best attorney for your case? Or, if you have already hired a lawyer, how do you know that that you should stick with that lawyer? Do you generally feel that you are respected in the relationship, or do you have that twisty feeling in your stomach that maybe this choice, while good for someone else, may not be the right choice for YOU?
Of course you are likely not a lawyer yourself, so how do you know that your doubts are based on a real problem, and not just on your neighbor telling you that his own lawyer did a much faster, better, more efficient job? (Watch out for anyone who hands out legal advice along with a beer and some chips, but that is for another post).
Sometimes people call me and ask for a second opinion. I’ll listen to what is going on in the case and usually will advise them to sit down with their lawyer and just ask some questions. It often sounds like there has been some miscommunication. But sometimes will politely say, well, everyone’s strategy differs, and here are some things to consider.
For example, in our own firm, our partner Ann Groninger was approached by a man who was injured as the passenger in a car. The driver of the car had been killed in the wreck. The man already had a lawyer, but he wanted a second opinion. The investigating officer had found that the car’s driver had been drunk, so the insurance company was denying the passenger’s personal injury claim, saying he should never have gotten in the car. The man kept insisting to his lawyer that the driver had not appeared drunk at all, and had not been known to take a drink that day. For months, his case went nowhere. After the passenger hired Ann to represent him, she investigated and realized that the officer had misinterpreted the blood test results. The client was right — the driver was not drunk! Our client is now looking at a better result in his personal injury claim because his new lawyer had a different approach.
Here are four signs that you should dig a little deeper.
No one returns your phone calls or emails. Your lawyer is busy working on cases and may have limited time to talk on the phone. If she can’t do it herself, though, does she has someone else, like a paralegal or associate, designated to listen to you? You have a right to get your questions answered! Unless it’s the same question every day. Don’t ask that! Instead take notes when you speak to your lawyer. And maybe your lawyer can’t call you back the same day you call, but be sure if she can’t, she explains the firm’s policy for returning phone calls and messages.
When someone does return your call, they don’t have much information about your case. There are a few clients who don’t want to know or don’t care what their lawyer is doing on their behalf. But most clients want to know what is happening. Have letters been written, is there an investigation being conducted, are there any new updates? Hopefully you have received copies of letters and court filings. When you talk on the phone, your lawyer may not remember off the top of her head the most recent development or the date of the next deadline, but she or her staff should be able to check and give you that information. Not answering your question immediately I don’t see as a problem. Not answering with some specifics is a red flag.
He doesn’t seem to be taking the case, or you, seriously. If your claim or matter was substantial enough for a lawyer to take it on, then it’s serious enough for the lawyer to work on it. There are periods in every case, especially in litigation, when there is not a lot going on. But even in a lull, you are entitled to know the lawyer’s strategy for working the case and bringing it to a resolution. That was the problem with our passenger above.
She can’t give you a timeline of important events in your case. You have a right to know what is coming up. Is it answering interrogatories? Is it a deposition? A mediation? These are examples from litigation cases, because that is what we do, but every legal matter has an expected set of steps. Your lawyer should be able to identify these steps and give you some reasonable expectation of what will happen. Of course every case is different and many legal matters don’t go exactly as planned. But if that has happened, your lawyer should be able to explain that too.
You are a consumer and should feel comfortable with your choice. If you don’t, chances are a phone call or meeting will help you feel much better about your case. We lawyers are not perfect. We get busy, we get distracted by the emergency of the day, and we are human and make mistakes. But if that phone call or meeting doesn’t satisfy you that your case is on track, though, it may be time for a second opinion.