Eat the ugly frog first: that’s what time management guru Brian Tracy advises people to do when prioritizing their daily tasks. He believed that tackling the toughest task first frees up the energy needed to do everything else on your list. I would give you the same advice but for a different reason. Asking the toughest questions first during your initial consultation with an attorney will allow you to quickly get the information you need to assess whether he or she is right for you.
How do I define a tough question? Most lawyers already have well-rehearsed responses to questions about their education and experience. Any attorney worth the price of a legal pad can spin his or her credentials in such a way that you may leave his or her office believing he or she is a lock for the next opening on the Supreme Court of the United States. A tough question is one that the attorney is not routinely asked and that they are not likely to have a prepackaged response ready to toss your way. These questions are more likely to elicit the type of authentic responses, which can provide invaluable insight on how he or she may handle your case.
Nine Tough Questions Clients Never Ask … But Should
Here is a list of questions an attorney will not expect you to ask. Do you need to ask all of them? My best advice is to proceed as the path unfolds. Review the list and then rank the questions in the order of relative importance to you. After the attorney responds to the first two or three questions, you can then decide to proceed with the other questions or you might feel you have enough information to make a decision about whether the attorney is right for you.
1. Have you ever declined to represent someone seeking your services? What would you think of a woman who said “yes” to every man who asked her out on a date? I think it would be fair to describe her as desperate. That is why “yes” is the only right answer to this question. It means the lawyer has standards and that he or she knows he or she can’t help everyone who walks in the door. It also means he or she is not so desperate for money that some dollars can’t walk out the door.
What are some good reasons why an attorney might decline to represent certain clients? There are as many good reasons as there are good attorneys.
Here are few examples of the type of clients I routinely refuse to represent:
Clients who have already hired and fired several attorneys. I will not represent a client who has hired and fired more than two lawyers before contacting me. A client who has hired and fired more than two lawyers may project the ill will they feel toward their previous lawyers onto me. Maybe I am wrong, but I am not willing to find out.
Clients who express their belief that all lawyers are crooks. Occasionally at the end of a workshop, instead of asking a question, someone will raise their hand and when I call on them they proceed to bash attorneys and express how much they love to hate lawyers. This happens so often that I am no longer surprised when it does. However, I am still floored when these same people will ask me to represent them. I always, always respectfully decline. There is no way I am going to agree to represent someone who openly and passionately hates lawyers. Is it because I am thin skinned? No, it is because these people are almost impossible to satisfy.
Clients who express a willingness to lie. In North Carolina, you have to be separated from your spouse for one year before you can file for divorce. Not a week goes by when I don’t get a call from someone who says, “My spouse and I have been separated for less than a year but we are willing to say it has been a year so we can get a divorce right away.” How do I respond to these clients? I simply say, “I wish you well but I can’t help you.” And I usually give them this free advice: Anyone who will conspire with you will also conspire against you.
Clients who complain about legal fees. Legal crises are often unexpected, and most people don’t have a few thousand dollars lying around to pay an attorney. So I completely understand the challenge clients sometimes face in paying my retainer. I make it clear if they feel my fee is too high they have the option of seeking assistance elsewhere. In fact, I encourage them to shop around. However complaining about the fee is not an option because it is as an indication that they do not see the value in the service I provide. If clients don’t see the value in what their attorney is doing for them, then no matter what happens, they are not going to be happy with their services.
2. If you were in my situation, and I could not hire you, whom would you hire instead? This question will probably catch the attorney by surprise. That is why their response can be very revealing. An attorney who refuses to provide a name may be afraid to do so because he or she is worried you will leave the office and hire that person instead. You want an attorney who cares about you. If he or she really cares, it won’t matter who helps you. And if they are really confident in their ability, they won’t be afraid of the competition.
3. What is the most important question a client should ask before hiring an attorney? This question will give you some insight into what the attorney thinks is important and you can then assess whether what is important to him or her is also important to you. If the attorney responds by saying “What happens if I don’t pay the bill in a timely manner?” then this may be an indication that money is what the attorney really cares about. Contrast that response with an attorney that considers this to be the most important question a client should ask before hiring an attorney: “What can I do to ensure that I get the outcome I seek?”
4. Have you ever had to sue a client? If they say yes, that doesn’t mean you should run out the door. Ask them to explain, and if they can’t offer a satisfactory explanation then you should head for the hills. I have been practicing law for over twenty-five years. I have had several clients that failed to pay their agreed-upon fee. However, I have never sued a client to collect my fee. My motto is “If they can live with the money they owe me, I can live without it.” There is nothing wrong with a attorney suing a client, but there is nothing right with it either.
5. What is the difference between you and every other attorney in town? This is not an invitation for the attorney to bad-mouth his or her colleagues. It is gives them an opportunity to put their best foot forward. This is how I would respond to this question: I consider myself to be more than just an attorney; I am an “encourager at law.” I pride myself on being the most positive and encouraging attorney not just in the county where I practice, but on the planet.
6. How would you describe your ideal client? Give the attorney a second to formulate his or her response to this question and make sure you listen carefully to what he or she has to say. You have to be willing to honestly assess whether you fit their description. If the attorney says his or her ideal client “sits back and lets me handle everything,” and you know your personality is such that you like to micromanage every aspect of your life, then think twice before retaining this attorney.
7. What would one of your disgruntled clients say about you? This is how I would respond to this question: I had a client who had three young children. She and her husband were separated. On one occasion after a visit with their father one of the kids didn’t want to return to her home. She told me she told her seven-year old son that after everything she does for him he should be ashamed of himself for crying and hurting her feelings. I told her that she should be ashamed of herself for chastising a little kid who is forced to choose between his parents. She did not respond to my comment. But, a few days later she said she no longer wished me to represent her. I still feel bad about hurting her feelings, but I don’t regret telling her the truth.
8. What is the biggest mistake clients make when dealing with their attorney? I think a good attorney will appreciate this question. It will also put him or her on notice that you are a thoughtful client. Not every attorney wants a thoughtful client, but only thoughtful attorneys will appreciate this quality in his or her clients.
9. Do you love what you do? Love is a powerful force; it moves mountains. That’s why you want an attorney who responds with a resounding YES to this question. Attorneys who love what they do put in the hours needed to do it well. That’s why attorneys who love what they do are in the practice of making things happen. Lawyers who don’t love what they do make a lot of excuses for why they didn’t do what they said they were going to do for you.
Nine More Questions
In addition to the questions above, you should arrive at your initial consultation with a list of any other questions you have. Here is a list of the type of good questions that I am routinely asked:
1. Who is going to actually be working on my case?
2. What do I do if I am unhappy with your services?
3. What can I do to save money?
4. Is the fee negotiable?
5. Is a flat fee an option?
6. How often can I expect to hear from you?
7. What is the worst-case scenario?
8. Are you willing to put your promises in writing?
9. How long will it take to get the relief I seek?
This is an excerpt from Who Not to Hire. Download your copy below:
Who Not to Hire
Photo Credit: Visual Hunt