Lawyers read Legal View too.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, some disagree with my advice, especially when it comes to telling people how to deal with lawyers. (It's not surprising because lawyers are trained and paid to be disagreeable. Ask any 10 lawyers the same question and you're bound to get 10 different answers.) Don't get me wrong. Just because they disagree doesn't mean they are wrong. In fact, many of their comments are worth repeating.
Pasadena lawyer William R. Harmon takes issue with my suggestion that you should ask a prospective personal-injury lawyer how much your case is worth. "The most horrendous statement you made was a suggestion that the client ask for a reasonable settlement figure based on the facts described," he writes.
Client's Anxiety Cited
"To begin with, I think an attorney is a fool to accept, without cross-checking or verification, facts told to them by the client. This is not to say clients are lying to them, but they are extremely prejudiced in their views, nervous, anxious and have a great deal of uncertainties early on in the case.
"If one states a figure," Harmon continues, "and some attorneys state them high to get the case, the client has that figure locked in his mind and, in fact, has spent the money far before the settlement arises. Then what happens if the settlement figures comes in for less than the anticipation? We have created an irreparable breach in the attorney-client relationship."
Harmon has a valid point. Settlement estimates should not be fixed in stone, and you should not award your case to the highest bidder. But discussing the possible range will help you understand your case. For instance, is yours a case where punitive damages are likely or possible?
Century City lawyer Louis M. Brown, a leader in the preventive-law movement, disagrees with my admonition that you should have specific questions in mind when you consult a lawyer. "I have for many years suggested that each family ought to have a family lawyer," he writes.
"The best time to explore the possibilities for a family lawyer is when you do not need a lawyer. . . . Too often people wait until some emergency arises, and then it becomes necessary to employ a lawyer immediately. The better practice, in my opinion, is for persons to have a general lawyer so that if an emergency does arise, that general lawyer is already somewhat familiar with the client and can assist the client in whatever the emergency is. That does not mean that the general lawyer will necessarily handle the matter, but is better able to assist the client in selecting an appropriate lawyer for any emergency needs."
Act Before an Emergency
Brown's comments are worth keeping in mind. They remind me of an early-morning phone call I received from a very casual acquaintance. His son had been arrested and he needed a criminal lawyer familiar with juvenile court. He didn't have a lawyer, so he scoured his phone book for anyone he'd ever met who had a law degree. I'm sure he would have felt more comfortable if he'd followed Brown's advice.
And finally, Woodland Hills lawyer Thomas E. Stindt adds his own tips to some of mine on how to keep legal costs down if you find yourself needing a lawyer to represent you in court.
"Ask the partner in charge of your account if the firm has handled this type of litigation before, and when and how frequently. Having a good data base stored will save you drafting and research time, and you will avoid training attorneys on your account.
"Meet the team that will handle your litigation, and limit the people to handle your file," Stindt warns. "Generally, if I were hiring litigators, I would want an experienced trial attorney teamed with a good legal writer, and I would avoid having first-through-third-year associates working on my files. (Let them get their training on someone else's time; the hourly rate differential is minimal, while the wheel-spinning can be substantial.)"
Each of these lawyers has offered a bit of common-sense advice, and in English, not legalese.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.