As hard as we try to not to get ourselves in trouble, sometimes we find ourselves in sticky situations and end up needing to seek expert advice in the form of a lawyer. If you haven’t seen a lawyer before, it can be downright frightening and intimidating to do so. The following is an attempt to provide you with some ideas and strategies to make this easier.
Firstly, I have to say that while I am a lawyer, I live in a completely different jurisdiction than the vast majority of Persephone readers. If you have any personal legal issue, please seek the advice of someone in your area.
So you find yourself in a situation that looks like it is going downhill. You think, “Hmmmm, this isn’t going well.” The first thing I recommend is WRITE THAT SHIT DOWN. Human minds are fallible, you won’t recall all of what has happened. Write a diary of events as they happen. People often don’t behave well in these situations, so you need to write down exactly what you said or did, as well as the other person. If you swore at them, write it down. Sure, it may kick you in the arse later but at least you can say, “Yes, I did call them a sack of shit, but I only did it because they called me a giant zit on the arse of humanity first.” Half of my job is trying to get the story straight out of the client, and if they have something in writing about what has happened, it is often a lot easier (well, sometimes).
Also, while I recommend documenting an issue, be very careful about using recording devices. Here in New Zealand it is an offence to record someone without their knowledge. To that extent, using dictaphones, the recording functions on smartphones, or cameras can be a dangerous path to go down. Use your head on that issue.
So you haven’t been able to resolve the issue by yourself. You need to see a lawyer. You haven’t seen one before. How do you choose a lawyer? The phone book, recommendations from friends and family and the internet are all good places to start. You will need to find a lawyer who practices in the area you require help in. I wouldn’t see my friend the family lawyer for a criminal issue. With a bigger firm they will have different teams who deal with particular areas of law and so they will be able to direct you to the most appropriate team. With smaller firms or sole practitioners, you need to be sure they are experienced in the matters you need them to deal with. It is not rude to straight up ask, “How much experience do you have in this area? If you do not have much experience, are you being mentored by someone who is experienced?” As a young lawyer, I am not offended by this question and I am happy for clients to meet with my boss so they can be satisfied I am being properly mentored and supervised.
So you find a lawyer. You’ve heard good things about them and they do the work you require. You ring up and book in to see them. What should you do now? The first thing, I beg of you, please, is TAKE THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE COLLECTED WITH YOU. Two things infuriate me with my job. Number one is no-show clients, number two is clients who do not bring the relevant information with them. Clients who come and see me about an employment issue but who say, “Uh, I left my employment agreement at home” are the bane of my life. You waste your time and the lawyer’s time by doing this. So gather up all the information, and take it to the meeting.
So you’re now in the lawyer’s office, chatting to them. Firstly, never be afraid to ask a lawyer about the costs. After hearing your situation, a good lawyer should be able to lay out a plan of attack for you, and give you a guide as to how much it will cost. You should ask for a written quote, or at the very least, a break down of expected costs. You are paying for their services, and their services don’t come cheap. As such you should know what you are paying for. The lawyer should also provide you with a retainer letter, which should set out such things as the work they are doing for you, how you can contact the lawyer and what to do if you have any issues. You may also be able to enter into a payment plan to pay off the bill. Discuss that at the beginning as it becomes a hassle at the end if the lawyer starts to chase you up for unpaid fees.
You’ve discussed the situation you’ve found yourself in and you’re discussing the plan of attack. Is it reasonable? Generally Court action is the most expensive way to resolve an issue, not to mention the most stressful and it will take the longest. Has the lawyer discussed Alternative Dispute Resolution with you? In some situations mediation or arbitration may be more appropriate, and are cheaper and less stressful. Or does your jurisdiction provide other ways to resolve matters? Here in New Zealand, recently separated couples can access free counselling through the Family Court that can help them resolve parenting issues that can prevent them from going to Court. Employers and employees can access free mediation, which has a 90% success rate. These services avoid the expenses and stress of Court.
So you’ve instructed a lawyer to resolve your issue but things aren’t going well. The issue isn’t being resolved, the lawyer isn’t communicating with you and it appears the fees they are charging are exorbitant. What can you do? The first thing would be to talk to the lawyer. You need to raise your issues to their attention before they can fix it. If it’s too hard to do this face to face, put it in writing. Let them know what they are doing that is causing you grief and how you want it resolved. If that doesn’t fix matters, there will be a professional body you can complain to. A quick Google search should tell you how to complain about a lawyer.The professional body will have a set of ethical and professional standards that the lawyer has to adhere to, and if they have not done so, you would be more than entitled to lay a complaint.
That is just a quick rundown about what you should know before seeing a lawyer. As I said, any personal legal questions, please seek advice from someone local to you, any general questions about seeing a lawyer I’d be happy to answer in the comments.