In our litigious world, most builders have an ongoing relationship with one, or heaven forbid, more attorneys. I often receive calls from clients in need of immediate advice. Frequently, it becomes apparent that the dispute has been brewing for weeks or even months and is considerably more complicated than initially represented. Under such circumstances it is difficult to provide meaningful advice. Just as one must learn to become a good attorney, one must learn to become a good client. This column will address some of the ways in which clients can make their relationship with their attorney more productive and effective.
An Ounce of Prevention. Many clients seem hesitant to invest in protecting themselves before problems arise. While such a lack of planning might ultimately be more profitable for their attorneys who must attempt to convince a judge, jury or arbitrator what the chicken scratch on the napkin really means, it creates tremendous uncertainty with respect to what the likely outcome of the dispute will be. Therefore, attorneys like clients who involve them in their businesses. This allows an attorney to become familiar with the client’s philosophy and goals and the client to develop confidence in her attorney. The attorney can then suggest ways in which various risks can be addressed contractually and otherwise. Should a problem later arise, the attorney will already be familiar with the client and any documents in question which she drafted and will be better equipped to evaluate the dispute and counsel the client.
A Little Foresight. It often becomes obvious fairly quickly when a problem isn’t going to be able to be easily resolved. Yet, many clients don’t call their attorneys until the last minute and expect the right answer. Since most attorneys are busy, it is difficult to drop everything to put out a fire. More importantly providing advice “off the cuff” without time to consider all of the options can make a bad situation worse. Being able to recognize which situations require an attorney’s involvement is a valuable skill learned only through trial and error. However, clients who develop this skill are often able to avoid having disputes escalate out of control by involving their attorney sooner rather than later. In such cases, the attorney is able to provide advice regarding the options available to the client and the pros and cons of those options. In contrast, a client who has pursued an unwise course of action will be disappointed when her attorney is unable to easily help resolve a problem.
Honesty is the Best Policy. Attorneys give advice based upon the information they are provided. If the information is less than complete, the attorney will not be able to properly advise the client. Admit any mistakes you have made. Your attorney needs to know everything relevant to the dispute. Clients should never intentionally withhold information, whether it is their recollection of events or documents. Clients who do so will lose the trust of their attorney and may well lose a case when the unfavorable evidence is later brought to light.
You are Not an Attorney. Some clients think they are attorneys. Since we are constantly reminded there are already enough attorneys, more aren’t needed. No matter how sophisticated you are, let your attorney do her job. While input and regular communication is necessary and appreciated, micromanaging your attorney is both costly and ultimately unproductive. Attorneys who know their clients trust them value their relationships with those clients.
Clients who understand how to effectively use their attorneys and consider them a part of the team will be ahead in the long run. Those clients who only consult their attorneys as a measure of last resort will often be disappointed.
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