How to Communicate Effectively with your Lawyer
by Jane Stack and Nancy D. Kellman | Apr 9, 2021 |
How to Communicate Effectively with your Lawyer
Communicating effectively with your lawyer is essential to optimizing your case’s outcome. Attorneys have knowledge of and access to relevant law, but depend on you for knowledge of and access to relevant facts. A case is decided based on how the law applies to the facts, and both aspects are equally important. The following strategies can help you communicate effectively (and cost-effectively) with your attorney, who is likely juggling many cases simultaneously:
Put as much as you can in writing.
If you have specific questions, facts to communicate, or preferences to articulate that pertain to a discrete project (for example, a motion or settlement proposal your attorney is currently writing on your behalf, a spouse’s failure to pay child support, responses to discovery demands), put them into one email that consolidates all of your thoughts. Explain the substance of your email clearly in its subject line.
Email is usually a more direct and efficient way to communicate than a phone call, and gives your attorney time to think and research, if necessary, before responding. Attorneys can also return to the text of your email to remember what you asked, and you can return to the text of their response to remember what they answered.
Use the Pyramid Principle.
Structure your communication intentionally by using the “Pyramid Principle” to help you organize and convey your thoughts in a way easily and quickly understood by the human brain, as explained in the below-linked Medium article as it applies in a business context:
The Pyramid Principle can be adapted to attorney-client communications as follows:
- Begin with your point (i.e., one sentence on the email’s purpose).
- Second, group and summarize your ancillary questions or points (i.e., one sentence that includes a numbered or bulleted list, such as: “I am going to ask/tell you three things: (1) x; (2) y; and (3) z.”).
- Finally, logically order (i.e., chronologically, or by importance) and expand on your ancillary questions or points, if necessary.
You are the client, and your attorney has a responsibility to read, understand and respond to you regardless of whether you put in the effort to structure your communications to her. However, any time and thought you put into organizing your communications and keeping them as succinct as possible will save money and elicit the best possible legal advice.
Schedule a phone call if written communications go unanswered or issues remain unresolved.
Phone calls can be an effective tool for re-capturing counsel’s attention and bringing your concerns to the forefront of her mind and to-do list. Make the phone call most effective (and cost-effective) by sending a brief, written agenda in advance that includes items for discussion (see above for guidance on how to make this email communication as effective as possible). Send counsel no more than one email on the topic, and attach all documents to which you will refer, when possible. Again, you are the client. Attaching documents for your attorney’s convenience is not necessary or expected. However, doing so will lessen confusion and save time and money.
It is appropriate to ask whether and how much your attorney expects to bill you for a certain phone call or project.
Asking your attorney before a call whether and to what extent she plans to bill for that call might feel improper. It is not. She will often tell you that she plans (and it is customary) to bill for the entire call. This is why it is important to make your conversation productive.
It is also appropriate to ask your attorney, at the outset of a project (i.e., drafting your Statement of Net Worth, drafting a settlement agreement, drafting discovery requests, making a motion), approximately how much time she plans to spend on that project. She cannot tell you exactly, because there are always unknown variables, but she can give you a ballpark estimate that might open the door to a frank conversation about how much time you think is appropriate for her to spend on a particular project.
Let your attorney guide you as to the most important facts.
Much of your counsel’s value-add is that she has been to law school, where she primarily learned how to “issue-spot” or identify the most relevant facts and issues in a case. Issue-spotting is much harder (or impossible) to do when the facts and issues at hand are facts and issues you have lived, rather than facts and issues you are trained to spot as a professional. Therefore, trust your lawyer’s judgment, and let her guide you when you are providing facts. Providing unnecessary detail can be confusing and expensive.
Give your thoughts space and time to meander.
Collect and organize your thoughts by journaling, talking to friends, and meeting with a therapist before speaking to your lawyer. Your lawyer should be prepared to refer you to mental and behavioral health care professionals skilled at handling issues arising from divorce. In addition, the following organizations (including many others) offer mental and behavioral health services and clinics via telehealth and at multiple different locations throughout Westchester:
- Family Services of Westchester: https://www.fsw.org/our-programs/family-mental-health-centers
- Westchester Jewish Community Services: http://www.wjcs.com/mental-health/
- St. Francis Counseling Center: https://stfrancisnyc.org/counseling-center/
- Located in New York City but accessible via telephone and Zoom.
- Call 212-736-8500, ext. 290, and leave a voicemail.
Don’t underestimate the power of aerobics and mindfulness.
You might also consider aerobic and mindfulness exercises to help combat stress and focus your thoughts. I’m a lawyer, not a doctor, so I’ll let Harvard Medical School do the talking here. The below-linked articles give several useful techniques and the science behind why they are effective:
Finally, it is important to remember that the best attorneys – the only ones worth their fees – will be willing to help you navigate the above. Ask questions, speak truth, prioritize self-care, and only work with those attorneys.