I have appreciated the Sunday feature in The News Tribune where the Wall Street Journal writer tells us “10 things (fill in the blank) won’t tell you.” So I grabbed that idea and am suggesting “10 things your attorney should tell you.”
I can’t say these are all of them, nor can I say they are in any order of priority. There are a lot of other things that should be told to you, but here are the ones I feel are vitally important.
1. “I don’t know.” Fear of saying this to a client might lead to not being paid. Attorneys, especially the younger ones, believe that they should know a lot about everything. When your attorney says that she doesn’t know, then you know she isn’t putting up a false front. Honesty is occurring – a very good thing.
2. “You are an idiot.” This isn’t fun to hear, but some clients need to hear it, either because it is true or at least it tells you how your attorney feels about you.
I have known situations in which the client leaves the office or courtroom and their attorney (certainly not me – I’m talking about other attorneys here) exhales something like, “What an idiot!” If you are paying for that attorney, you should be entitled to know where you stand. As a corollary, I think you are entitled to give the same statement to the attorney.
It really is best to get all things ironed out before heading to court. You and your attorney should be as much on the same page (for a trial or hearing) as possible.
3. “Don’t ask me ‘if’ questions.” This will save you money, because there is really no end to “if” questions. Possible scenarios (like pianos falling from the sky and crushing you), are certainly very frightening. But if your mind constantly moves to asking those questions, the clock is ticking and your bill is going up.
4. “It isn’t worth the cost.” Your goal of suing your neighbor because of that tree branch sticking over your lot is probably not worth the price of the attorney and court filing. There should always be a cost-benefit analysis working within the conversation.
5. “The court isn’t the best place to solve this.” For a long time I had a sign in my office which read, “The biggest thing we have to lose is the fantasy of vindication in court.” Just because everyone, including your mother, thinks that you are right and the other side is wrong, doesn’t mean that the court (or jury) will reach the same result. Your mom is brilliant, but perhaps not objective.
6. “The restraining order is a piece of paper.” This doesn’t mean that they aren’t important in many cases, but to think that it will stop an attack from an unreasonable, obsessive mental disorder is fantasy. See No. 5 above.
7. “I don’t believe everything you say.” If you fool your attorney, don’t be surprised in court when everyone in the courtroom is laughing except you and your attorney.
One of the realities of an attorney is that he is hearing three voices at once: your voice, what the other side is probably going to say and what the court is likely to think. Some clients believe that if they can float a false statement past their attorney, then they might be able to fool the court.
8. “It is an adversarial process.” The court system’s quest for the truth is built on something called the “adversarial process.” Here is the concept: If you want to find out the truth about something, hire two scientists to attack each other. From this the truth will float to the surface.
In the courtroom this process is tiring and expensive, and when children are involved it is often harmful to them. In custody cases, the best way to injure children is to attack the other parent.
9. “You should trust your gut.” When you meet with your attorney, you should have a gut sense, as well as intellectual sense, about what is being discussed. Quite often the attorney can start enjoying his own voice so much that the words just start tumbling. You aren’t sure if you were heard by the lawyer, and you aren’t sure you understand what the lawyer is saying. Slow the process down and demand clarity.
If the attorney really knows what he is talking about, he should be able to explain it to you. If he can’t, review No. 1.
10. “That is not a realistic fear.” The legal system is full of hidden problems. Some of your fears are realistic, and some are not. It is hard to sleep if you have to keep all fears (realistic and fanciful) on your mind at once.
The attorney should help you focus on the biggest dog nearest your rear end. Until that dog is dealt with, the others may not be critical. And some of the other dogs simply don’t exist.
Scott Candoo, a Tacoma attorney, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on these pages. He and his wife, Susan, live in the North End. Email him at Scottc51@nventure.com.