First time speaking to a lawyer? Let’s make this easy, start with “hello.”

effective lawyer communication

Calling a lawyer for the first time can be intimidating, uncertain, and frustrating.

It doesn’t have to be, nor should it.

This short article is written to help you communicate with a lawyer for the first time, in a way that will benefit you both. Lawyers are there to help you through your legal problem and a few small changes in your approach will make it a lot easier for them to reach your goals as a client.

Don’t be afraid.

Lawyers want to help and they will not charge you for merely calling them. Lawyers are a business like anywhere else. Starting a conversation costs you nothing but is very valuable in putting you on the right path in your legal journey.

Start with a hello. Tell the lawyer your name. “Hello, my name is Corine, may I speak to a lawyer?”

After reading the article below, your next conversation with a lawyer will be easy, effective, and helpful.

There is no such thing as a quick question

The law is immensely complicated. If answers were quick or easy, then lawyers and courts would be unnecessary. Put another way, there is no such thing as a “quick question” on legal matters. Approaching a conversation with a lawyer like this will be frustrating for both the client, and the lawyer. Do not assume your question is quick or easy, it never is.

Think of it in your own life. When you child says “Mom, I have a quick question.” or your own customer, patient, or student says “I have a quick question” – is it? As we know, it rarely is.

When a potential client calls me on the phone and says “Hi, I have a quick question.” it is always followed by a detailed, run-on explanation of what is happening or has happened to them. Such as,

“Ok, so the other night I was arrested for assaulting my spouse but it didn’t happen and she doesn’t even want me charged, and now the police are saying I have to go to court and deal with this and I also have to get my fingerprints done but I can’t have a criminal record because I have never been charged before, so I don’t even know what is happening and I am not even allowed to go home or see my kids or anything right now.”

As you can see from this typical encounter, there is  rarely even a question, let alone one that is quick.

Often, I respond by asking “So what is the question?”

To this, the potential client is often confused because they forgot how they premised this conversation. From there, the lawyer has to start asking questions and try to figure out the problem. All of that is fine, and most are quite happy to do so in order to help the person. However, this is not a quick or easy process.

This common occurrence is fueled by a client’s assumption that they will get an “answer” to their problem.

As I often say to clients “You are not after an answer, you are after a solution.”

The answer to what has happened is easy. Getting to the solution is the hard part and why a person needs professional legal counsel. It is the difference between being diagnosed with an illness (“you have diabetes”) and seeking medical assistance to set a course of action in pursuit of a solution to your illness.

The same can be said for lawyers.

People are not actually after answers, they are after solutions and it is the lawyer’s role to guide the client to that end.

Collect your thoughts, find the time, and find the place to have the conversation.

For a conversation with a lawyer to be effective, there are a few essential starting points.

To start, a lawyer can’t listen to your problem and try to offer advice if they literally cannot hear you. Your issue is important to them. They want to help. They need to understand the issues and consider what you are saying carefully. This cannot be done if they can’t hear you.

All too often, clients will call from a cell phone while on speaker, on a bus, with excessive background noise, under unrealistic time pressures, or other distractions that make it impossible for the lawyer to properly listen to the complicated issues the client is trying to express.

Find a quiet room, ideally a land line, and put aside 15-20 minutes to have a conversation without interruption so that the lawyer can listen carefully and work towards solving the problem. Imagine you are going to visit your doctor. We will give you our undivided attention; we only ask the same and the ability to do so.

Secondly, collect your thoughts if you can.

Legal issues are complicated. Fortunately, lawyers are highly effective in identifying and solving them. Getting there is a lot easier if the client can first identify a short summary of what has happened to date, and what outcome they would like to see. If it helps, take a moment and answer these three simple questions on a piece of paper, in one sentence or less to each answer:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why are you calling a lawyer?
  3. What do you want to happen?

For example, if a person is charged with a criminal offence, the ideally prepared client would call and say

“Hi, my name is Colten and I was charged with having cocaine in a car the other day. I am hoping you can help me understand where to go from here and how to try and fight these charges.”

Or, in a family law context:

“Hello. My name is Morgan. I am thinking of getting a divorce from my spouse. We have three kids so I am concerned about how all this goes down without affecting the children too much. I am also on a limited budget.”

These simple starting sentences allows the lawyer to quickly spot what the issue is and start asking relevant questions. Which brings me to the next part of this article: let the lawyer lead the conversation.

Let the lawyer lead the conversation and ask the questions

By calling a lawyer, you are already wisely recognizing that you need professional help.

Let that lawyer help you, let them ask the questions, and let them determine what information is immediately important. Chances are, what you think is important right now, isn’t – and what you think doesn’t matter, matters a lot.

At some point, everything is important in your case. However, before the lawyer can get you to the final destination, they need to look at the map of where you need to go. At the start of the conversation, let the lawyer lead the questions and conversation.

Just like a hospital, lawyers need to understand some basic stuff first. For me, as a criminal lawyer, I need to know things like:

  • When were you charged?
  • What are you charged with?
  • When is your next court date?
  • Do you know what disclosure is and do you have it yet?
  • Are you on bail or released from the station?
  • Do you need a variation of those conditions?
  • Is this a domestic violence allegation?
  • Have you been charged before?
  • Are you under 18 years old?
  • Do you have a criminal record?
  • Are you intending to hire a lawyer through Legal Aid or privately?

There are many questions like this that the lawyer needs to understand before they can do anything.

Understandably, clients want to quickly jump to the stuff that matters to them most like “I want my charges withdrawn” or “I am innocent” or “I need to leave my spouse.” All of this is indeed important, but we need to understand the most basic of things before we can tackle the complex. Let your lawyer lead the conversation.

Don’t worry, important things will not get missed but we need to start from the beginning.

Patience. The law moves at a pace we are not used to in 2020.

In 2020, we can obtain virtually anything within moments and often without even leaving our home. Want a car? No problem, we can have you in one today fueled up and ready to go! Need a meal? Uber Eats is on its way! Want a home? You may have to wait a couple of days, but no problem.

Want your legal issue dealt with?

Time to wait – and wait – and wait…

Unlike everything else in society, the law moves at its own pace. So much so that the Supreme Court of Canada has held that a constitutional right to a “trial within a reasonable time” is 18 months for smaller matters and 30 months for more serious ones (a vaccine for COVID was found in less than 12).

It is ironic indeed that in the leading case of R. v. Jordan setting out these timelines they shame the inferior courts for their “culture of complacency” and in the same judgment, provide acceptable timelines that extend beyond what even the most complacent of industries would consider laughable. But I digress…

As a participant in the justice system, you are now living in that culture of complacency and your timelines and what others might think as “reasonable” are not relevant. Understand that as much as your lawyer wants to help you, things take time. Courts take time. Opposing parties or prosecutors take time to respond. To further frustrate matters, the merits of your case (for example, if you are innocent) have no bearing on these timelines.

As a client, you need  understand your lawyer must work within such a system.

If it sounds too good to be true, then it likely is. Speak to several lawyers.

When speaking to lawyers and making your own assessment of whether they are right for you, listen for substance. What are they actually saying or advising you on?

Here are some valuable questions to ask yourself in determining whether a lawyer is dealing with your honestly and will be effective for your case:

  • What are they actually saying?
  • Do they have specific knowledge of the issues you are discussing?
  • Do they add anything other than what you already know or hoped for?
  • Is the conversation any different than one you had, or might have, with your spouse or friend?
  • Do they promise a lot with no substantive plan on how to get there?
  • Do they rely on self-professed and unprovable skills or relationships to obtain your result?
  • Do they acknowledge the uncertainty of the proceedings at early stages?
  • Do they acknowledge the things not preferable to hear (such as it will take a while, it may be expensive, uncertain, etc.)?
  • Are they listening to you?
  • Are they telling you only what you want to hear?
  • Do they ask questions (like those above) or just tell you things?

Finding the right lawyer is a difficult task. Above all, speak to many of them. Choosing a lawyer is one of the most important decisions you will ever make  in your life. Do not do so lightly. We are not all the same. In speaking with multiple lawyers, you will come to realize the actual situation you find yourself in and who is treating you with honesty and candor.

Hopefully, this article helps to improve your initial consultation with your potential lawyer and gets you closer to the goal of finding counsel that is right for you.