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Legal VIEW

Learning How to Play the Lawyer-Client Game

January 15, 1987|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

Getting along with your lawyer is not always easy.

Sometimes, even understanding what your lawyer says is difficult. And making sure that your lawyer is doing a good job in the seemingly arcane world of courtrooms and legal documents often seems nearly impossible.

Lawyers frequently use shorthand abbreviations that only other lawyers--and not their clients--can understand. A lawyer may say he is going to court for a TRO, without ever bothering to explain that he is talking about a "temporary restraining order." Of course, most non-lawyers don't quite understand what a restraining order is anyway, so not only does the abbreviation need explaining, but so does the concept.

If you are having trouble understanding your lawyer, want some help in figuring out how to monitor legal performance, or plan to fire your lawyer but don't know how to do it, you might want to read "The Lawyer Book" by Los Angeles lawyer Wesley J. Smith. Subtitled "A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Client Survival," the book is new.

Smith describes what he calls the "art" of being a good client, one who is demanding, well-informed, punctual, precise and plays the lawyer-client game the way a lawyer would play it.

For instance, Smith advises his readers to send their own lawyers confirming letters summarizing what they have promised to do and when it will get done. That lets your lawyer know you're serious and expect satisfactory performance. It will also be handy to have around when your lawyer forgets what he promised to do, or mucks up your case so badly that you have to hire another lawyer to sue for malpractice.

Ralph Nader, who has written an enthusiastic introduction to the book, warns that many lawyers are "not ready for the consumer or client assertiveness and participation that Mr. Smith believes desirable," and they might not like being reminded that the client is the boss and not the other way around.

But that's what I've been saying for years. You hire your lawyer. You can fire him or her. And that means it's their job to satisfy your needs.

The book contains many helpful hints about lawyer billing, selection of a lawyer, the adversary system, how to complain about your lawyer, how to be a good client and a "Client's Bill of Rights." It even includes hypothetical conversations between imaginary client and divorce lawyer with names such as Janice Jilted and Letme Atim.

Many of the suggestions are not new, or are nothing more than common sense, but they are presented in an engaging, witty style that makes reading the 239-page book a quick process. Regular readers of this column will find that Smith and I have similar attitudes about lawyers and their obligations to their clients.

A sampling of Smith's pithy observations about the law and lawyers:

--"Never, never, never hire a lawyer who is a good friend or close relative."

--"If your lawyer ever makes a guarantee of success--get a second opinion."

--"Too many clients are made to feel like Rodney Dangerfield. Don't forget, you are the source of your lawyer's income--demand respect."

--"Lying to your lawyer is like cheating at solitaire--you never really win."

--"Some lawyers pad their bills in much the same way as some butchers do when they put their thumb on the scale."

The book, which is published by Price/Stern/Sloan, sells for $7.95 and should help you save much more than that in legal fees.

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