Sunday, January 30, 2011

FAQ for Lawyers: Questions Lawyers Should Ask

Usually an FAQ (frequently asked questions) has responses to questions regular people ask. Our law firm website has faqs for speeding tickets, DUI, personal injury and criminal law.

But today I'm writing an FAQ from a different angle. These are questions I frequently ask people who call our law firm. From a law practice management perspective, I find these questions, and the answers they prompt, helpful.

Are you thinking of hiring a lawyer to help with that?

This is the most important question I ask, from a law practice management perspective. We get many calls from people who are not interested in hiring a lawyer. From a business perspective, those calls are a waste of time for us.

There are a few different ways people respond to this question:

Of course. That's why I called you.

This is obviously my favorite answer. Now we can get right into the meat of what the problem is, what we do for clients in cases like this, how much it costs, and why we might or might not be the right law firm for this person.

No, I was trying to reach ....

We get this a lot. The caller is actually trying to reach someone else, like a public defender, a prosecutor, or a court. Asking the question early in the call saves us both a lot of time.

I just have a question.

This is often a call for free advice. We are not a free advice line. That's an awfully difficult way to make a living. It also takes time away from us doing work for the people who paid us.

The answer dodges the question, so I respond in a way that redirects back to the important point: Does your question relate to whether you might hire a lawyer?

I do appreciate that the legal system is complex and that regular people (i.e. non-lawyers) have a lot of questions. Unfortunately, as someone who runs a business, I don't have time to answer all such questions. It's not just the one person who's asking a question at this moment - on a bad day we get ten calls like this. I choose to help the people who pay me for my time.

One of my favorites is when the caller offers to pay me to sit down with them for an hour and explain to them how to do it themselves, typically on a speeding ticket. Apparently my three years of law school and 17 years of experience can be explained in one hour.

Even on a speeding ticket, there is no simple recipe for what to do. There are too many things that can happen, especially if you're going to do a trial.

We charge $X to handle a case like that. Is that a dealbreaker?

Some callers are interested in hiring the cheapest lawyer they can find. That's not us. A good example is callers from Florida and Texas on speeding tickets. Lawyers there handle tickets for very low fees, typically less than $100 and I've heard them go as low as $50. Our lowest fee for a speeding ticket is $500. For felonies we charge a minimum of $5000 and often more, so people looking for a $500 felony lawyer or a $50 traffic lawyer don't need to waste their time (or mine).

Have you spoken to any other lawyers yet?

I should ask this one more often. Some callers already have a lawyer or have shopped their case to others. If other lawyers didn't want the case, they probably had a good reason. Be careful. And if they already have a lawyer and are having problems with that lawyer, the odds are they're going to have problems with you too.


Here are some questions specific to criminal cases:

Where were you born?

This is mainly a question in criminal cases, but may apply in other areas. It is critical because criminal cases can lead to immigration consequences. Asking their immigration status does not always get you a clear answer. But if they were born outside the US, you know you have to look into it.

A related question in traffic cases is where the client is licensed. The impact of a NY ticket (or DWI) on drivers from other states can be quite different from the impact on a NY driver and it's important to know that so that you do what's in the client's best interest.

What will the police say that you did?

In some cases the question is not what the police will say, but what the tickets say. I'll ask what the person is accused of and they will say something like this:
Well, they said I did X but what really happened was ...

I stop them. For a variety of reasons, I don't necessarily want the client's story first. People want to tell their story, but I'd like to know the accusations first and we can address any defenses or explanations after we've got that settled.

Is he/she out on bail?

This is both a business and legal question. On the business end, if they can't afford bail there's a good chance they can't afford me. Second, from a legal perspective I really need to talk to the client, so the business end of the conversation needs to address whether the caller wants to pay for a jail visit.


And some personal injury questions:

What did they do wrong?

One of the essential questions in a personal injury case is whether someone else is responsible. While there are strict liability cases (where someone is responsible regardless of whether they did something wrong), most of our cases require negligence. This comes up often in slip-and-fall cases. Someone will call after they fell somewhere - for some reason it's usually supermarket parking lots. If the store didn't do anything wrong, then let's not waste everyone's time and money.

Please describe your injuries.

The other side of a personal injury case is the injuries. In car accident cases the injuries have to rise to a certain level or the case is worth nothing. This is a detailed question and you have to ask all kinds of ways. Ask about how it feels. Ask what doctors they've seen and what they've told the patient and did for them. What scans or procedures have been done.

If their neck hurts and they haven't been to a doctor yet, it's probably not a case. In some places lawyers might sign the person up as a client and send them to a doctor who will diagnose something to create a case. Our friends at the personal injury practice of Dewey Cheatham and Howe have that covered. But that's not our style. If you spend time on the bad ones, you won't have enough time for the good ones.

Those are some questions we ask people frequently. We'd love to hear other questions lawyers like to ask callers, so please post comments!
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