Oh God, I Have to See a Lawyer: What You Should Know

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.

When I searched for "law," a picture entitled GorillaWeeeee came up. Very nearly put that here instead.

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.



By Cesy

Cesy grew up in a sheep farm in New Zealand. Accordingly some of her views are a bit strange.

11 replies on “Oh God, I Have to See a Lawyer: What You Should Know”

Always check out more than one lawyer before deciding on one, no matter how great the first one seems.

I have horrible luck with lawyers. When I was hit in a car accident I met with six lawyers who all told me they’d work on contingency but would not go to court, or would only do so for an additional cost. Finally I met one who said he’d go to court and there’d be no additional upfront fees (above the contingency) but when court was needed he refused to go unless I coughed up 5K upfront (which I didn’t have, having lost a job and other consequences from the injury). As a result, I have been in permanent pain and barely able to stand for more than a minute since then, because I didn’t have enough to get the surgery I needed – there was nothing left after paying medical bills and his fees from the basic check the insurance company paid. My neck was inverted and spine is fractured – I would have won in court had he not lied about representing me. But that’s not all. One that I hired when I was divorcing was supposed to send a letter; weeks went by and he never sent it nor did the work I’d paid for and wouldn’t return my money. Then the next one bailed on me two weeks before trial after nickel and dime-ing me for stuff she didn’t even do. The next one (years later) burned through 5K of 10K a relative gave me to work on a custody case and then changed his tune and said it wasn’t worth going to court over because I’d need more personal testimonials (which he’d always known I didn’t have and gave me completely different information at the beginning). Then one I had on an estate issue said he’d look at another issue I had (w/my HOA) but for no more than half an hour because it wasn’t worth doing more, then sent me a bill for five hours for the HOA issue, none of which was what he was supposed to be working on (and which was more than the HOA issue was worth to start with). I ended up having to go to court myself (I won), but then couldn’t find a new estate lawyer being broke and unemployed. Now I’m in the process of trying to find a new lawyer for the estate stuff, but I have no faith I’ll ever find one that doesn’t rip me off or cause me more problems than I had (and the above is just the glossy cliff-notes version of how many problems they caused me).

Yikes! Yes, seeing more than one lawyer can definitely be a good idea, when I refer people on I generally give them three or more options.

Your situation sounds terrible, I am so sorry. Have you gone through the complaints process with any of those lawyers?

Unfortunately, I haven’t been in the position to do so (as these all happened at times where it spiraled other aspects of my life that I then had to resolve); the one who didn’t do the letter stopped practicing law shortly thereafter, and the woman who bailed on my divorce is apparently considered one of the worst lawyers in her state (I went with her under advisement from a relative) and already has numerous complaints. I think sometimes it’s a fine line between letting them do their job/not micro-managing them (trusting that they are the legal experts and will work for your best interests) and ensuring that they are not ripping you off. I’ve found that when I wanted to discuss costs and ways to manage them I was looked at in a sort of ‘too much trouble’ way, but if I didn’t keep an eye on the expenses they’d tack on a ton of unnecessary charges and costs (i.e., making calls that I’d already made that they didn’t get any information from and so on). I don’t like telling someone else how to do their job (that’s why you hire professionals, after all), but when someone tells you point blank that they will do something and then doesn’t (yet charges you for it), it’s hard to trust them to do what they’re supposed to…

Yikes, I am so sorry. Those lawyers sound incredibly unprofessional. You are precisely right, it is impossible to trust someone who says they have done something and haven’t and unfortunately we have to place a lot of trust in lawyers. I try to be as aware of that as possible. If I haven’t done something I should have done, I contact the client, apologise and say “This is what I propose to do, are you happy with that”. They normally are, which is fantastic.

As I said in the piece, you should be able to discuss costs with lawyers easily, if they start mucking you around with that, then that’s definitely a  warning sign.

I’m sorry you’ve had these awful experiences. As you’ve learned the hard way, referrals are critical. It’s hard to find exactly the right lawyer for any given matter, but anyone looking should always start with people they trust. Always. Bad lawyers hurt all of us.

For anyone else retaining a lawyer or thinking of doing so–especially if the arrangement involves a limited scope (a limited amount of time, a specified project, handling a case up to trial but not trial itself, etc.) GET THAT SHIT IN WRITING, too. Make sure the scope is clearly described in the engagement letter, and don’t sign if it’s not.

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