Nearly all law firms offer a “free consultation.” An initial consultation without cost is like a free estimate to fix a household problem. While legal issues are considerably more complex than common household fixes, treating a “free consultation” like a “free estimate” may be useful. Just as with a common household problem, when it comes to legal issue, there must be some understanding of the nature of problem and the scope of the work desired.
For example, if you wanted to have a new driveway installed, you would contact a cement contractor. When the contractor arrived, you wouldn’t digress into discussing irrelevant matters, like your dissatisfaction with a paint job performed on your house. No. You would know exactly what you want (a new driveway or a repair); what you wish to pay for the service (your budget); and how your life may be impacted (i.e., how long will the existing driveway be torn up). These are what we might call “the basics.”
Yet, somehow, when it comes to legal consultations, these basics can get lost. There are a number of reasons for this – nervousness, immediate upset over something that has just happened, fear, anger. It is usually coming from a place of emotion. That said, time can go by quickly without ever nailing down the precise issue or issues. Sometimes a potential client may feel like he or she has not been understood, and an attorney may get off the phone and not really understand the nature of the legal problem. Here are a few (hopefully) helpful tips to make the most of an initial consultation with J.J. Conway Law or any other law firm:
A fifteen to twenty minute initial consultation is the norm.
An initial consultation is usually conducted by phone and typically lasts about 15 to 20 minutes to determine the next steps – including a longer appointment. It is somewhat standard practice to have the very first call handled by a non-lawyer. This is to ensure that the law practice you’ve contacted is capable of handling the legal issue for which you require assistance. For example, a long-term disability insurance case involves income replacement benefits as does workers compensation. Yet, these two areas of law are completely different, and most law firms do not handle both types of cases. J.J. Conway Law would be able to assist with a long-term disability claim but has no expertise in the area of workers compensation – a client would need a recommendation for another firm for such a case.
Think about your legal issue before making the call.
You don’t need to know anything about the legal system or the legal process when you have an initial consultation, but you should have some idea of the nature of your legal claim. Some matters are simple. For example, it is pretty easy to understand when you have a homeowner’s insurance claim, or you have been ticketed for speeding. Other matters, such as those handled by our practice, are more complicated. For example, you may have experienced an unexplained shortfall in your 401(k) account. Or, you may have stopped working because you had back surgery and really want to know what legal entitlement you may have to income replacement benefits – like a long-term disability claim. By being able to name your legal issue quickly, you will facilitate a good initial call.
Think about writing out three to four main questions.
Writing out a few questions before having a consultation can also be helpful. Using the long-term disability benefits claim as an example, you may want to write out a few questions before the call and place a check mark or short note next to each one as you have them answered. You may wish to know, generally, how does a long-term disability case work? What are the legal fee charges for a disability case? Are there any other costs besides the legal fee charges? What is the timeframe for resolving a disability case? These are just a few common inquiries.
Yield the floor.
Given the time constraints for an initial call, if a lawyer interjects, and asks you specific questions, that should be a sign that there are relevant facts yet to be discussed. Since we often tell our stories in chronological order, there is an impulse to say, “I’m getting to that” or “I explain that in a minute.” This is natural, but they may result in an important aspect of the case being missed. Assuming the lawyer is politely interjecting, you should consider answering the precise question.
You may not receive an answer that you like, but it might be the likely answer.
Sometimes, even a powerful story can have an unpleasant legal reality – like a statute of limitations. A Michigan Whistleblower Employer Claim has a notoriously short statute of limitations – 90 days. If during the call, you indicate that you were fired six months before the call, an attorney may explain that the case is unable to be filed because of a time-limit. That may be an answer that is unsatisfying, but the lawyer may also be saving you considerable time and expense being up front.
You are not a client until you sign a representation agreement.
Most consultations are like the earlier example of getting an estimate. You don’t hire the contractor until you agree to the work. The same is true for legal services. A law firm’s representation will typically not begin until there is a signed agreement.
You may wish to call two or three different law practices to get a feel for the legal issue and to evaluate whether lawyers are seeing the same issue the same way.