When a timid client says, “this is a dumb question, but…,” we usually respond that the only “dumb” question is a question that the client fails to ask. Experienced lawyers know how to draw most important information from timid and unprepared clients, but the most satisfied clients make lists of questions before meeting with their lawyers.
A savvy client’s preparation for an initial conference with a lawyer begins with self-assessment. First, the client makes written the story of the client’s situation to answer these questions:
• What happened?
• When did those things happen?
• Who is involved?
• What is the status of the situation?
• What may happen in the future?
• How does the client want the story to end?
Next, the client should write questions about what the client believes or has heard like:
• I can give $xx,xxx per year to my kids, right? (By the way, expect about a 10-minute answer to this seemingly simple question.)
• Do I have to pay taxes if someone pays me with cash to do a job? (By the way, the answer here is always, “YES! This is what took down Al Capone!)
Other important questions may concern these details about the attorney-client relationship:
• How does the lawyer charge fees for the services that I seek?
• Regarding payments, can I pay by credit card and will I need to pay anything upfront?
• What training and experience does the lawyer have about the subject?
• How will the lawyer deal with fees and expenses if our relationship ends prematurely?
• What legal deadlines may affect my objectives?
• What information and documents does the lawyer need from me?
• What alternative solutions can the lawyer provide for my issues?
• What are the potential benefits and limitations of the various solutions?
• What costs should the client expect for each solution?
• Could a particular solution trigger consequences like taxes, fines, penalties, assessments, government benefits disqualification, or retaliation by someone?
• How will the lawyer protect my privacy?
• Will there be any public disclosure of the subject matter, such as a routine report of some aspect of the matter in a local newspaper?
• How should I respond if someone asks me about the subject matter?
• What should I do if an emergency arises in the case after the lawyer’s business hours?
• What is the best way for me to communicate with the law firm?
• Will the lawyer communicate directly with me or through the lawyer’s staff?
• How often will the lawyer give me status updates?
• What can I do to help the lawyer finish the work quickly and cost-effectively?
• If something changes during the engagement, will fees and expenses change?
• How will I know that the engagement has concluded?
• Will the lawyer provide a written attorney-client agreement?
A lawyer may not be able to answer every question without preparation, so the client should try to deliver the questions to the lawyer in advance. Then, a skillful lawyer will appreciate the well-prepared client’s questions and both people will feel confident about their relationship because the client asked good questions.
Jeff R. Hawkins and Jennifer J. Hawkins are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers and active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Both lawyers are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois. Jeff is also a registered civil mediator, a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, the American Bar Foundation, and the Indiana Bar Foundation; and he was the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.
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