1. Know What You Want.
When you get ready to meet with any attorney, remember that in general you will be charged for the time you spend in the attorney’s office. Many attorneys (including the author) will have an initial intake meeting without charge, but once you are accepted as a client the meter will start running, unless you have negotiated a different form of compensation. So before you sit down with any attorney really make it clear in your mind “what is my problem” and “what do I want the solution to that problem to look like”.
Sometimes that is easy. You have found a house to buy and you want the attorney to help you through the process of negotiating a purchase and sale agreement and closing on the house. Many times it is much more difficult. You and your partner have reached an impasse in your business relationship and you don’t know what to do next. In that case it would be helpful for the attorney to understand what in your mind would be an ideal solution. Do you want to continue running the business? Do you just want to sell you share? Your attorney can then start working toward that goal. You may have signed an agreement that limits your options, or there may be other legal obstacles, but the attorney can try and work through those obstacles, if possible, or advise you that you are limited in your options.
2. Be Prepared to Tell the Story, Warts and All.
Always remember that your attorney is working for you. If you feel you can’t tell your attorney everything about a situation, even if it is embarrassing or it makes you look foolish, then either get a new attorney or be prepared for trouble ahead when those facts come to light. I have one rule that I always follow–I cannot represent a client who lies to me about a significant fact. From your point of view, any attorney you work with needs to know all relevant facts. In the example of a partnership that is not working, you need to make sure the attorney knows, for example, if your partner ever accused you of doing something wrong or whether you already agreed to something (selling the business) but now regret your decision. You cannot hold anything back no matter what is says about you or the situation. A bad fact is as important to you attorney as a good fact.
3. Bring as many Documents as You Have, but Read them First.
After your attorney has taken you on as a client, make sure your attorney has every letter, agreement, email or note related to the situation. However, don’t just dump them on the attorney. Remember in most cases the attorney will be charging by the hour and if you can help the attorney sort through the documents without the attorney having to read all of them from scratch it will be very helpful and save time and money. That said, your attorney need to review, and not just take your word for what a document says or its importance to solving your problem. A post-it note can sometimes be the difference between a successful solution and a disaster (it happened to me in a case).
4. Be Prepared to Listen and Not Just Talk.
You are generally very upset when you approach your attorney to discuss a serious problem. The attorney’s job is to listen to your story, but then your job is to listen to what your attorney is saying. If you have decided that you position is right and that the attorney should just get you what you want, don’t waste your time and money with an attorney. Your attorney is there is help you understand what the impact of the law is on your situation and that discussion may not conform to your pre-existing idea of what is right. You are working with an attorney to find a solution, but you must be willing to rely on the attorney’s expertise to guide you. Generally, attorneys do not impose their business judgment on a client, but the attorney will be able to point out the problems with reaching your goals and help you understand and then formulate a possible solution or compromise.
5. Do Not Undermine Your Attorney’s Credibility with the Other Side.
Once you have hired an attorney, be prepared to cease having informal conversations about the issues involved in your situation with potentially adverse parties. In the example of the partnership breakup. Once you have started working with your attorney, you can’t continue to negotiate directly with your partner, unless you have cleared it with your attorney first. Remember, your attorney is only effective if the other side thinks that the attorney speaks for you. This can be a problem in that it might force you to change how you deal with certain people and this can be uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as when your attorney states that you will only settle for X and you have already told the adverse party that you would be willing to take X-Y. At that point your attorney looks as if the attorney is trying to “pull a fast one” and the attorney loses the ability to effectively deal with the other side of any issue.
There are a number of other thoughts that I have on dealing with your attorney and how best to get what you need from the attorney client relationship, but that will be subject to future posts.