Friday, January 8, 2010

How not to hire an Oregon elder law lawyer.

Lawyers want and need clients. Our professional magazines are filled with ideas about how to get them and how to keep them. Clients pay our bills and keep us in business. However, we want good clients with good cases. Very few of us are so desperate that we have to take anybody who comes through the door and needs a lawyer. I have been astounded for years how difficult some people make it for me to want to take their cases. Many people who want a lawyer and need a lawyer are going without because they are doing a horrible job during their first contact with the lawyer.

A remarkable number of people who contact me give me some version of the following tale:

"I don't have any money to pay for a lawyer but this case is easy and you should be able to get the other side to pay your fees. The last lawyer I had was incompetent so recently I have been representing myself, but the judge is crooked and keeps ruling against me. Oh, and did I mention, I need to be in court tomorrow afternoon."
When I hear this sort of thing--and trust me, I really do hear it--I run for the hills. I would rather give up the profession than represent this person.

I have developed five rules to follow when you first approach a lawyer about taking your case. Following them won't guarantee the lawyer will take the case, but ignoring them will guarantee that he or she won't.

Rule One: Don't lead with the fact that you can't pay.

Lawyers are suckers for a good story and can often figure out a way to get paid if you can't pay them. But you have to sell them on the case first. When you start out with how broke you are, the lawyer's interest starts to drop immediately. You do have to be honest about your ability to pay; you don't have to make it the first thing out of your mouth.

Rule Two: Don't evaluate your own case.

People are always telling me how easy it will be for me to win their cases. They scare me when they do that. I practice law for a living and I know how easy it is to lose a case. I don't want to hear from an amateur what a slam dunk it is. Studies show that people in a dispute uniformly overvalue their own position and undervalue the position taken by the other side. Clients do this and lawyers do this. When you first talk to a lawyer about your dispute show him or her that you know there are two sides to the dispute, that your view is not the only view possible, and that you are willing to work with the lawyer to set realistic and achievable legal goals.

Rule Three: Don't bad-mouth other lawyers.

I had someone explain to me the other day that he had to fire his previous lawyer because she was grossly incompetent. I asked who that was and the potential client named one of the best lawyers in the elder law field. His harsh criticism of his previous lawyer made me wonder what he would be saying about me three months from now. I wasn't willing to risk it and sent the potential client down the road. Being critical of others seldom makes you happy and almost never helps you accomplish goals you would like to accomplish. I say this after having tried it over and over, waiting for good results to happen. They never did. If you walk into my office bad-mouthing other lawyers, the judges, and the other parties in the case all you do is convince me that you like to bad-mouth people and that once you leave my office you will probably be doing it to me.

Rule Four: Go see the lawyer before you have lost the case.

People have a constitutional right to represent themselves. I support that right and wish the best to anyone who wants to do it. But if you do it, follow through to the end. I am plagued with people bringing me a stack of unorganized paper and a story about how they wrote a whole bunch of letters to the judge and now there is a ruling against them. I look at the case register and see that they did a horrible job--failed to pay fees, misunderstood the rules, and missed important deadlines.  They represented themselves, they lost, and now they want me to go in and un-lose the case. It can't be done.

Rule Five: Don't wait until the last minute.

I refuse to work for clients who tell me over the phone or in the initial meeting that "there is a court hearing tomorrow afternoon." Legal proceedings provide ample notice of hearings. I have a calendar and I schedule my time. It takes me a long time to create a file and prepare for a hearing. I won't tell all my other clients that their work should wait because this new guy couldn't get around to coming in until the day before a hearing. I turn down good cases from paying clients because they waited until the last minute. Other lawyers do it to.

Some clients make me feel like they respect my time, they are interested in my opinion of the case, and they want me to be properly paid for my work. I love working for those clients. If you want to hire a lawyer, try being one of those clients. Lawyers will be falling all over themselves wanting to work for you.

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