How to Call a Lawyer

Over the years I’ve been blessed to discover some effectives way to initiate the first call to a lawyer, and some not so effective ways. Initial contact with an attorney can move quickly and efficiently, or can take longer and lead to more confusion. 

This post lists some of my own observations through 24 years of law practice to get the most out of your first call with an attorney. To clarify, it's not about WHAT to call a lawyer, as my imagination pales to many out there. It is about how to contact an attorney to make your first (or subsequent) call as productive--and inexpensive--as possible.  These are some helpful tips when contacting an attorney for the first time, or even when contacting your current attorney.

Call from a Quiet Spot

This is my biggest suggestion and most common problem. You are calling a lawyer because you have an important legal issue in your life that needs to be solved. If the attorney cannot hear you, or you cannot hear the lawyer, you risk losing important advice and potentially the opposite result you desire. Also, if you are being charged an hourly rate, the time it takes to repeat information only increases your bill. If you're not being charged at all, you are wasting the attorney's time whose time is her stock and trade.  So, please, before calling a lawyer find a quiet spot with no background noise like tv, car radio, noisy sidewalk, doing the dishes, chewing, walking with sandals that slap the floor, or small children. 

Speak Clearly

Speak clearly and into the phone.  Once in a while someone will call me from work about their issue, and speak softly so no-one can hear. Yes, some matters are highly personal and sensitive and people may not want others to overhear. But an attorney cannot advise you correctly if they don't understand your problem. Also make sure you have good reception and are sitting in, again, a quiet spot with a strong signal.  If your coverage is sketchy, consider calling from a landline.

To be serious, I get calls regarding some very anxiety producing issues. It can also help to gather one's thoughts, take some deep breaths, and maybe even jot down a few notes (see below) before dialing.

Arrange an Interpreter

English is different in the legal arena. Even some of my high educated noncitizen clients have never heard of a trial.  So even if one can get by with daily English, or English in one's particular industry, misunderstanding certain terms can result in important facts (and the lawyer's advice) being lost in translation.  Again, these are important issues to your life, so take the time to arrange for someone who can interpret in both your native language AND English. And don't be offended if the attorney suggests an interpreter--it is definitely for your benefit.

Have Documents in Front of You

You want an attorney's help. That attorney can better assist with more facts about your situation. Often, I will ask critical questions like, "what is the receipt date?" or "what is the deadline to respond?" and the answer is "Oh, I'll have to look at the papers." An attorney charging by the hour will have no problem waiting while you retrieve your documents. An attorney giving you a free initial consultation will save the real guidance for when you actually pay them. So have your papers, preferably in an organized file, in front of you when you talk to a lawyer.

Try Organize Your Own File

Almost every client in my 24 years as a lawyer has walked in with papers stuffed in a large envelope. I get it.  They're not lawyers and don't have assistants maintaining a file system like many of us. I will often make a folder and even two-hole punch a client's papers to create some semblance of organization. But doing so yourself will help you AND help your lawyer help you without spending your time (and money) organizing your papers. 

Whether hard copy or digital, I suggest maintaining one's file with separate folders labeled such as "Admin," "Drafts," "Docs," "Correspondence," "Notices," "Forms," "Application Packets," "Orders," "Pleadings-Ours," and "Pleadings-Theirs." And I don't wait until I need such a folder. All folders are created at the beginning of a case so documents are simply dropped in.

If you're really into it, you can name your digital files within those folders the following way: Year>Month>Day>ClientName>FolderName>DocumentType>Description.  For example, a retainer agreement signed by John Smith on January 9, 2024 would be labeled as "240109Smith-ADMIN_RetainerAgreement_SIGNED."  Yes I do this with just about every digital document in a case. The end result is that every document is listed in chronological order and easily referenced or retrieved.

Yes this is a lot. But any effort toward organization goes a long way.

Have a Pad and Paper

Write down the things a lawyer tells you.  There is no way a person can recall all the things an attorney has advised and be able to repeat or act on that advice accurately. Either the advice will be misinterpreted or you'll pay the attorney's time to repeat it. Just write it down and feel free to read back what you write to the lawyer to confirm accuracy. Also, note the date and location of each set of notes.

Consider Your Questions Before Calling

Think about what you'd like to know about your situation before calling an attorney. You can even write them down on a pad of paper as suggested above!  You'll be more confident and won't fumble for words. 

Leave a Message

Many first-time callers leave messages that I return as soon as possible. For some reason there are those that don't.  Perhaps they are looking to speak to a lawyer that moment and are running down a list they Googled. This strategy may not bear fruit. Also, there are some countries where it is simply not the culture to leave a voicemail and expect a returned call.  However, lawyers are generally not at their phones waiting for the next potential client to call.  Most are on the phone, in a meeting, at court, at lunch, driving, standing at the copier, visiting with colleagues, home sick, working on a project, or in the bathroom.  In short, there are many reasons attorneys don't pick up the phone on the first ring, and we cannot get back to you if you don't leave a message. 

Know the Name of Who You Called

This still gets me. We have a great initial conversation and, at the end of the call the person says, "Who am I speaking with?"  Sometimes I want to reply, "I don't know, who did you call???" Rather, I politely repeat my name and offer to email or text my contact info.  Of course, this question is a tell tale that the caller has been running down a list of many lawyers trying to find the right one or piece together enough free advice to DIY their case. In either scenario, it's a good idea to know who you're calling so that the person knows you have a serious matter.  "Tire kickers," as many lawyers refer to them, won't be seen as sincere and as a result an attorney's response can lack interest, accuracy, and/or detail. So, back to the pad of paper. Write down the name of who you call, their number, the date and time of your call/voicemail, and what the message or response is. Your own research will be better off for it!


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