Filed under The Business of Law.
Consider two clients who are winding up the business of a closely held company.* They both want to know what rights they have as they leave the business. There are questions about buy-outs, the valuation of the interests, and how decisions about the company will be made. When the first client comes to our office we discuss the history of the company and the client’s expectations for his buy-out. However, the client does not have all of the business operating agreements. It takes several calls and follow up meetings (and several hours of charges) to get a full set of agreements. It is only after we have a full set of documents that we know the controlling terms of the business relationship and we can develop a plan.
The second client sends copies of his company operating agreements before our meeting. Before the meeting, we are able to see how the documents fit together. The second of two operating agreements says: “In the event of conflict between this document and the earlier agreement, the terms of the earlier agreement control.” At our first meeting, we already have a clear picture of how management decisions are made, what noncompetition terms are in place, and how disputes among business partners are to be resolved. We are able to discuss the client’s concerns and goals and come up with a plan right away.
When lawyers charge hundreds of dollars for every hour of time they spend on your file, it is important to make the time effective and efficient. Here are five keys and some secrets to get the most value from your first meeting with a lawyer:
1. Prepare a Factual Outline
The first Lawyer Secret: Lawyers forget details. To help your lawyer remember and to save you money, create a timeline with important dates, documents, figures, and names. A lawyer can be a good listener and take thorough notes, but at a first meeting the lawyer does not always know how the pieces fit together—who is important, how much money is at stake, what documents control. You do not need to write a book, but basic facts are helpful. Then, if the lawyer is later reviewing documents and correspondence, the timeline acts as a glossary for facts, dates, and figures. The timeline becomes especially helpful when legal issues take several months to be resolved. When a lawyer has many cases to work on, it is easy to forget the details of a case. The timeline will save you money over the life of the file by giving the lawyer a quick resource for important details.
In cases that center around a specific factual event—like an injury accident or a disputed transaction—I encourage clients to write down all the facts they can remember about the event. We all think that with this type of serious event that we will remember the facts forever. But if you are like me, you would be surprised to go back to old notes and see details of events that you have now forgotten. Sometimes it is the small detail that makes a critical difference in how a case turns out.
2. Gather and Organize Your Documents
Err on the side of providing too many documents. Gather all of your documents and have copies or pdf files made for your lawyer. Sometimes, a simple memo or email makes or breaks a case. Do you have a property dispute? Print up information that is available online, from the county auditor, assessor, treasurer, planning and development services. Print up the satellite picture of the lot. Take pictures of the property line, the trespass, the driveway. Are you doing estate planning? Have a copy of your deed, outline the pieces of your “estate”—life insurance, retirement accounts, company ownership documents. Have you been sued? Have a copy of the summons and complaint and any past correspondence.Print up emails and put them in a three-ring binder.
3. Identify Your Objectives
Another Lawyer Secret: You get to decide how your case will be handled. Although you are coming to the lawyer to receive advice and recommendations, you have the ultimate authority to decide what the lawyer will do. Are you just trying to learn your legal rights and want to be informed? Are you reporting back to a spouse or business partner? It is fair to ask for a written explanation of advice from the lawyer. Or have you exhausted your efforts at negotiation and it is now time to sue? Tell the lawyer. But conversely, the lawyer has the right to decline the case or advise you against a lawsuit or other action.
4. Write Out Your Questions and Don’t be Afraid to Ask Them
You are paying your lawyer to answer questions. Do not be shy about asking all the questions you have. In addition to the specific questions about your legal issue, here are some questions that you are entitled to ask your lawyer:
What is your hourly rate for services?
5. Conserve and Consolidate Your Communications
The final Lawyer Secret: When your lawyer is completing her billing timesheet at the end of the day, she will review her daily emails and call logs to make sure she captures all her time. If you send your lawyer three emails in one day, how much time will she charge to your file? If possible, put all of your questions into one email. If there is a document or information from an email that you have a question about, send it with the email and highlight the particular text. If your lawyer has to dig through her files to find the document, that is time that you will pay for.
While it is important to conserve your communications, do not make the mistake of sharing too little with your lawyer. Your lawyer needs to know all facts—good and bad—to give you the best advice. Do not parse out information or limit what your lawyer knows in the interest of cutting costs. That is a recipe for disaster. My advice is simply to make your information accessible, thorough and efficient. If you follow these steps, you will have a productive and hopefully, economic experience with your lawyer.
If you would like to schedule an appointment to review your legal issues, please use the Contact Us feature on our website or give us a call at (425) 332-2000.
*The examples listed are composites of past projects. Our examples do not reflect specific client histories.