Meeting with a lawyer can be stressful for many reasons. Usually, the events that created the need for a lawyer in the first place – a serious car accident, the breakdown of a marriage, the death of a loved one – are stressful. The thought of spending money on an attorney can cause even more stress. A fear of the unknown can also add to the pressure. This piece will try to reduce some of the stress by explaining what potential clients should know when meeting with a lawyer for the first time.
It’s normal to feel nervous before meeting with an attorney. But African Americans are more cautious than others. According to research from Duke Law School, African Americans are less likely than whites to seek legal help when they need it. While African Americans have good reason to distrust the legal system, don’t let distrust stop you from fighting for your legal rights. Hopefully, the information in this guide will empower you to hire a lawyer with confidence.
First, a Word About Legal Ethics . . .
Most movies and television shows depict lawyers as unethical people who lie at every opportunity. But reality is quite different. In real life, lawyers must follow a strict set of ethical rules. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct clearly state that a lawyer shall not “make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal.” Any lawyer who breaks this rule would be punished. So, contrary to popular belief, lawyers cannot lie.
Because lawyers learn personal information, some fear that attorneys will spill these secrets. But the ethics rules prevent lawyers from disclosing information except in very limited circumstances. The attorney-client privilege applies even during the first meeting.
Finally, the ethics rules put the client in control. While the lawyer has the legal knowledge, decisions such as whether to accept a settlement are left to the client. Knowing that you have control over the direction of the case should make you feel more confident when meeting with a lawyer for the first time.
The Point of the First Meeting
Before meeting with your lawyer for the first time, it’s important to remember a few things. First, keep your expectations reasonable. Most initial consults last about 60 minutes. The lawyer will not be able to solve a complex legal matter in that time; court cases take months or years to resolve. (In fact, some attorneys provide little or no legal advice in the first meeting.) In the first meeting, the lawyer will only have time to let you know what she thinks will happen and how much she will charge. Remember that the first meeting with the attorney is just the start.
Also, before you hire an attorney, you must decide if you like the attorney. The attorney-client relationship is one of trust. You’ll need to trust your attorney with private, intimate information. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing with the attorney during the initial meeting, the relationship will likely not improve from there. So, think of the first meeting as an opportunity for you to decide if the attorney is a good fit for you and your case.
Note: Even if the lawyer quotes you a fee, know that you do not need to make a decision during the meeting. Attending the consult meeting or paying a consult fee does not obligate you in any way. Take the time to find an attorney that meets your needs.
What the Lawyer will do during the First Meeting
The first meeting is a time for both you and the attorney to figure out how much time, money, and effort the case will take. So, you can expect the lawyer to do a few things to help him make those calculations.
First, the lawyer will ask you a number of questions about the case. It may seem odd to answer personal questions from a person you just met, but the lawyer is not being intrusive. Rather, he is trying to get a sense of what happened. Courts make rulings based on the law and the facts, so it’s important that your lawyer get the facts right. Remember, your conversation is privileged, so be as honest as possible.
Second, the lawyer may ask you (or have you fill out a form) about other people who may be involved in the case. The lawyer is not trying to be nosy. Rather, the ethics rules require lawyers to avoid conflicts; They must make sure they don’t simultaneously represent clients with opposing interests. So, the lawyer will ask as part of the screening process.
Finally, in initial consults, lawyers usually tell clients how much they charge to take on cases like theirs. After hearing the price, you may decide that hiring an attorney simply isn’t worth it. (Remember, you are under no obligation.) If you do decide to hire the attorney, his office will send you a contract called a retainer agreement. Once you sign that, the lawyer is officially your legal representation.
What to Bring When Meeting with a Lawyer for the First Time
Clients often feel nervous before meeting with a lawyer for the first time but being prepared can help. Though the lawyer will ask you a series of questions, you should have a list of questions of your own to help you evaluate the attorney. Here are some questions you might want to ask:
- How long have you practiced this area of the law?
- How many cases like mine have you handled?
- What results (acquittals, verdict amounts, etc.) have you gotten in other cases like mine?
- Are there any arguments you think the other side will make?
- What evidence (photos, documents, etc.) do you need from me for the case?
- Will you personally represent me or ask a junior attorney to help?
- How long does it take you to return calls or e-mails?
Your questions should focus on whatever is most important to you about the relationship. Write them down before the meeting because nerves may cause you to forget. Bring pen and paper so you can take notes or write down other questions that come to you during the meeting. You may also want to bring important documents.
Meeting with an attorney for the first time can be stressful. Hopefully, knowing what to expect will help you walk into the meeting with confidence. If you need to hire an attorney, use The African American Attorney Network. The Network was created to help African Americans find quality legal representation. Use our search tool to find an attorney near you.
Nareissa Smith, Esq. is a former law professor and a journalist who writes about racial and gender justice issues including law, health, and education. She is a graduate of Spelman College and Howard University School of Law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact her via Twitter (@NareissasNotes). Smith also writes for the African American Attorney Network where the article first appeared.