Bad lawyer jokes have been around since time immemorial. On the whole though, and certainly in New Zealand, the reality is a far cry from the jokes, and the experience for clients who deal with us should generally be a positive one.
When you engage a lawyer in relation to any legal matter, you are asking for help. The focus here is how to ensure that you get the very best help you can as a client, in the most effective, cost-efficient manner. A big part of that requires the lawyer and client to work well together as a team.
Based on my experience of practising in the area of dispute resolution and civil litigation over the years, there are certainly some approaches that can be taken by clients, that are very effective in helping to achieve favourable outcomes and in an economically-efficient manner (the emphasis here relates to legal disputes, but many of the tips apply equally to other areas of law). So, here are my top five tips.
Tip 1. Wherever possible, engage a lawyer at an early stage. In this column, we have previously written about the benefits of seeking early legal advice. A brief re-cap. Savvy folk get legal advice early. Early intervention by a lawyer may not be sought due to a belief that a party can make a legal issue go away, and there may be concerns about legal costs. That approach could prove counter-productive. Taking sound advice early enables you to understand your legal position (and that of the other party). Early steps taken on the advice of a lawyer could well also be key to early resolution of a claim, or at least ensuring that skilful strategy is arrived at for management of the matter. Sometimes we are confronted with situations where parties have sought to muddle through difficult legal wrangles without legal assistance until they were forced to, for instance due to court proceedings have been issued against them. Unwittingly, such clients potentially make matters worse for themselves. When we have a bad tooth ache, we go to a dentist. We don’t try to fix the tooth ourselves. Same applies with legal issues.
Tip 2. Consider carefully what your goals are and what you are wanting to achieve. Share these thoughts with your lawyer at an early stage. It will assist you and your lawyer to prepare a road map for the claim, and with strategising as to how to achieve your goals.
Tip 3. Provide your lawyer with a written outline of your “story”. Make it detailed enough so that your lawyer does not have to then ask too many questions. Try to stick to the relevant facts, but do include those facts that you consider are unhelpful to your position too. We need to understand the good, the bad and the downright ugly. So be upfront and honest with your lawyer. This ensures that we can give full and accurate advice. If we only get part of the story, our advice may end up being misguided and hamper us in our ability to protect your best interests. Once you have prepared an outline document, it may also be helpful to prepare a chronology of key events/dates. Then, put together a bundle of the relevant documents you want your lawyer to review. If there are lots of documents, placing them in date order and/or by category is very useful. Of course, your lawyer could attend to these steps for you. But, providing your lawyer with a neat package could save considerable time, and that makes good sense for your pocket.
Tip 4. Keep your lawyer fully informed of any discussions or direct negotiations you are having with other relevant parties. More generally, this means view your lawyer as a team mate and always stay on the same page. This avoids potential embarrassment and unnecessary compromise of positions.
Tip 5. Telephone and emails. Try to keep these stream-lined. If you need to relay information to your lawyer, try not to send a series of emails in a short time frame, but one. It will be a far more efficient use of your lawyer’s time to read through one longer email, and respond to that, than to receive numerous throughout a day (although, sometimes in a period of high activity for a claim, that traffic may indeed be reasonable and necessary). Remember when you are on the telephone to your lawyer, that generally the time taken will be charged to you. Use the time wisely. And finally, the relationship between lawyer and client is based on a high degree of trust and confidence. There should be good synergy. If you do not have a collaborative relationship with your lawyer and/or you don’t believe the lawyer “gets” you, your business or legal issue, perhaps consider finding another, better suited, one.