This guide is to help those who call a law office to get what they want: legal help.
1) Your name. We attorneys want to know it if you call us. If you are calling for someone else, we want to know your name and the name of the person for whom you are calling.
In most circumstances, if you are calling for someone other than yourself, we will have to run a conflict check on both you (out of caution) and that person (the potential client). To do this, we need names.
Your name is your full legal name. If you say “I don’t want to tell you my last name,” attorneys will not be able to run a competent conflict check. A “conflict check” is a simple or extended review to make sure that we do not represent a client against another client or, in some cases, a former client or other interested party to whom we owe an ethical duty. Conflict rules are complex but the beginning of a conflict check is knowing who the clients and non-clients in the fact pattern are. The first person whose identity we must know is the client or potential client. Accordingly, if you call a law office but refuse to allow the law office to conduct a conflict check, there’s not much we can do for you.
2) The name of the other party. For the same reasons as given above, if you call a law office about your situation and you refuse to tell us who the other driver, the witness, the employer or supervisor, the creditor, etc. is, we cannot give ethical and competent advice. It is frustrating to get calls from prospective clients who will not tell me the name of the company for which they worked, but may want me to press a claim in federal court. I rapidly lose interest in those callers, and sometimes hang up on them without social courtesies as they are stealing my time and are not serious about letting me do my job properly.
3) When lawyers ask you a question, answer it. We lawyers ask questions for the same reason that doctors’ offices have stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs: we need information to form professional opinions, give a diagnosis/analysis and give a professional course of medical treatment/legal advice. The persistent refusal of clients to answer important questions remains one of the great time wasters in the practice of law. Sometimes we get a “no” answer, then find out that the real answer is a big YES.
Typical: Did you have anything to drink that night? No.
Were you drunk? No.
What did you drink? Tequila.
How many shots? Probably 4-5.
So you were drinking, right? Yes.
So when I asked you whether you had had anything to drink and you answered no, that was [expletive], right? Uh, well, maybe.
Working lawyers (i.e. lawyers with clients, not law professors with tenure) can give you many such examples.
4) Keep appointments. If hiring a lawyer doesn’t matter to you, then calling us is a waste of your time. If hiring a lawyer matters to you, then randomly no-showing to initial consultation appointments with an attorney in your community is also a waste of your time; that lawyer will usually lose interest and you are back to square one in finding an attorney for your case. If you have lots of lawyers from which to choose, it may be no big deal for you but you are still wasting your own time.
Generally, when clients no-show, we attorneys get irritated but then we remember that that unreliable goofball is now some other lawyer’s goofball problem, and we have a good laugh.
5) We want to talk with the client. It’s nice if you want to take the initiative to get your husband, boyfriend or adult grandson an attorney. If you want to assist in his defense costs, that’s generous of you. But we lawyers want to talk with the client/prospective client unless the client is under a legal disability, and usually even then. What Grandma or Concerned Girlfriend or Uncle Joe says to a potential attorney on behalf of Chuck Client is almost never privileged if the client is above 18 years of age in most states. It may (or may not) be confidential or constitute a “secret” under ethics rules, (meaning that the attorney cannot divulge it willingly) but will usually be subject to subpoena, discovery, etc., up to its relevance or likelihood to lead to relevant evidence. Either the attorney or the family member/friend may have to reveal the content of the communication at least in theory in some cases. Similarly, once the representation has commenced, what clients tell us is privileged and we usually have to kick (ok, politely escort) family members out of the conference room.
Complicating this scenario is the fact that family members or friends may already be fact witnesses to some aspect of the case, depending on the case. We cannot easily advise a family member of a client, for example, whether or not that person should talk with the police. Rule 3.4(f) of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct, for example, prohibits attorneys from advising non-clients not to talk to opposing parties (police, prosecutors, etc. as State agents) except with some limits for “relatives” (undefined) if we attorneys believe reasonably that that person’s interests won’t be harmed by such communications. Does this sound clear? It’s hardly clear, but is a mandatory ethics rule in Maryland and in similar form in most states. The more we talk with relatives, rather than the clients, the greater the risk that we may start crossing many ethical lines.
The short version is that we need to talk with our clients, we need our clients to talk with us and that talking with family or friends is ethically very complicated, particularly in high-stakes cases like criminal cases and major civil cases.
To sum up:
a) We lawyers need to know the names of our potential clients, anyone calling for a potential client and the names of other parties to the case early, and we need not to get the run-around when we ask.
b) We lawyers need clients to answer our questions, preferably honestly the first time we ask the question.
c) We lawyers need clients not to be deadbeat flakes about showing up (and potential clients just waste their time if they make law office appointments for no purpose and then no-show.)
d) We lawyers need our clients to be the ones with whom we direct the bulk of our serious professional communications, not their family members or friends, due to serious ethical and professional reasons.
Please note that I haven’t discussed money. Money doesn’t matter for any of the foregoing; it certainly matters if the client is going to hire an attorney, but it doesn’t matter for the basics of identifying who the client is, with whom we are communicating, who the opponents are, getting answers to questions and showing up to appointments like a grownup.
Adult clients who refuse to cooperate with the foregoing aren’t serious, and lawyers should work hard for serious clients, not flakes. If this sounds harsh, good.