Attorneys undergo exquisite training. They devote thousands of hours to memorizing thousands of cases and teasing out any hint of useful precedent.
But the number of training hours spent learning how to interview and effectively interact with clients? Zero. Unlike medical schools, law schools view the professional/client relation as something that just naturally, if mystically, flows. The result is often blundered, obfuscated, and costly miscommunication.
This relationship breakdown cannot entirely be dropped in the lawyers’ laps, however. Most clients enter legal offices with the no more preparation than is spent getting ready to purchase a shirt. To help set attorneys and clients on a more productive course, the New Jersey Continuing Legal Education Institute offers “Practical Advice for Interviewing and Choosing Clients.” This one-evening seminar will be held on Tuesday, August 11, at 5:30 p.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. Moderator Steven Menaker of Chasan Leyner & Lamparello is joined by David Dugan of Medford; Raymond Londa of Londa & Londa in Elizabeth; Lynn Fontaine Newsome, with Donahue, Hagan, Klein, Newsome & O’Donnel; and Agnes Rymer of Saiber in Newark.
From his three decades of litigation and personal dealings with all levels of clients, Dugan brings a renowned expertise in legal ethics. After taking an admittedly scattershot selection of courses Dugan emerged from Wheaton College with a bachelor’s in social sciences in 1959. From there, continuing his thirst for fringe courses, he entered Yale University Law School, bypassing courses in basic evidence, for psychology in law and the like. Upon graduation Dugan spent three years during the Vietnam Conflict in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.
Dugan worked briefly in a Newark-based private firm before joining South Jersey Legal Services. Here, eventually becoming SJLS’s director, he dealt with hundreds of clients, both litigating and advising. Seven years ago Dugan turned his talents to legal ethics full time and opened his private practice in Medford. He wrote ICLE’s “Professional Responsibility in New Jersey: A Manual of the Law of Ethics” and serves as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University Law School and NJICLE lecturing on legal ethics.
Client preparation. Remember the phrase “billable hours.” It will markedly focus your mind on concise legal interactions. Unfortunately, most clients enter their attorney’s office as if they were seeking medical aid, bearing only their body and gaping wound. In truth, seeking legal aid is more akin to obtaining services from a venture capitalist. The more thoroughly and precisely you present your problem, the more fruitful will be the quality of help.
Whether you’re contacting an old company retainer or making a first-time acquaintance, think before you punch the number. State, rehearse, and write down a cogent, succinct version of your problem before you call. “Secondly, ask yourself what you really want out of this situation,” says Dugan. Letting the attorney know if you want this legal snare to just go away, to find a compromise, or gain a trouncing victory saves oceans of time.
Often the initial phone contact is free, providing attorney and client a chance to see if the issue fits, and whether there is a compatibility. This is your time to ask questions such as “Is this the kind of case you often take?” You should, at this early stage, ask for a general prognosis of outcome and discuss a fee schedule. Also, check on availability. Can you contact this attorney online, after hours, or only at the office, from 9 to 5.
“And for heavens sake,” says Dugan, “bring in every scrap of pertaining paper. If you are buying property, bring in the bill of sale, bank agreements, all of it. I have had clients who come rushing to me having been served papers, and leave the papers at home.”
Once both attorney and client have deemed the problem appropriate, and have found a basic comfort level, it still might not be time to roll up your sleeves. To assure the attorney is acting in your best interest, a strong code of ethics and law have been laid down to protect against conflict of interest.
Conflict of interest. “There is a greater depth to the problems of conflicting interest than most people realize,” says Dugan. Most potential conflicts deal with concurrent clients or stem from past associations. Obviously, lawyers individually or within a single firm may not represent both plaintiffs and defendants, or two opposing parties in a single case. But that is only an initial platform, notes Dugan. Attorneys cast a broad net. They must refuse cases in which they or family members or members of the firm receive benefits in any way.
Reaching into the past, it is assumed that lawyers will build relationships and retain certain loyalties with clients, even if they no longer are directly on the payroll. This whole question of former client context might drift into gray areas, with ethics holding a stricter code than actual law. In one 1998 Texas decision, one law firm representing a suit against a contraceptive company was disqualified when it was learned that one of its paralegals had formerly worked as a condom distributor.
“To avoid going too wide on this process,” says Dugan, “New Jersey is now one of several states that allows screening.” Referred to as an ethical or Chinese wall, screening allows the law firm to totally disassociate an individual attorney from a given case who might otherwise present a conflict. “He can, of course still function in the firm, he simply may not be a primary in that case,” explains Dugan.
As a final method of allowing the individual to connect with his chosen representation, clients are given the right to waive conflict of interest in many cases. “It entails an elaborate formula to make sure that the client is aware of the full consequences,” says Dugan, “but it is a very useful tool for all parties concerned.”
As with all business connections the attorney/client relationship grows in trust and rapport with time. Yet there is a bit of delicacy here that makes a strong and comfortable bond more necessary than other dealings. The fact is, selling cattle or software really does not entail the kind of trust that offering up one’s most intimate feelings and finances requires.
Because of this personal nature, and their own vulnerability, clients seek a lawyer as above reproach as Caesar’s wife, and expect to save their bacon from the legal fires. Such matches can and do frequently occur, but only if both attorney and client prepare, interview thoroughly, and treat each other with utmost respect.