By Ed Walters
When I was a practicing lawyer, I had plenty of experience dealing with difficult clients. Now that I’m running my own company, I have a little more sympathy with my old clients. Things happen fast in the business world, and the advice of lawyers sometimes seems like more of a hindrance than a help.
Regardless of your company’s size, a good relationship with a trusted outside counsel can be one of your greatest assets. A good lawyer is part business partner, part wise uncle, and part trusted friend.
It’s a common lament among businesspeople that lawyers don’t understand how business works. But lawyers have the same lament: business leaders don’t understand well enough how to work with their outside counsel.
Here are some tried-and-true ways to get on your lawyer’s last nerve, and some ways to avoid these common mistakes.
1. Wait Until the Last Minute
Lawyers are pretty busy people, and the best ones are always in demand. Consequently, their calendars are pretty full. Most lawyers are pretty understanding when an emergency comes up. But they don’t like it when you have a few months to reply to something, and you notify them with only a few days’ notice. In order to help you, they will have to renege on a commitment to somebody else. And then only if they can finish your work in the small time available.
The best practice here is to call early and work with your lawyer to fit the work into both of your schedules. Bonus: your lawyer will do better work when she isn’t rushed.
2. Go Rogue
A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. This is doubly true if you’re not a lawyer and trying to represent yourself, or give yourself legal advice (even if you’re a lawyer). When you’re faced with legal questions, ask a lawyer for answers. You’re smart (one hopes). The best way to demonstrate that is not to handle legal matters yourself.
Invest upfront in the advice of counsel. It costs a little bit more, but it’s much more affordable than what your lawyer will have to charge to clean up your mess later.
3. Don’t Listen to Advice
Sometimes your lawyer will give you the answer you need — but not the answer you want. Listen to your lawyer.
With that said, it’s important to find a lawyer who understands what you’re trying to do, who can tell you the law, and tell you how to accomplish your goals with the least amount of risk. Lawyers are trained to be risk-averse, and any lawyer can tell you that something can’t be done.
The best lawyers will work with you to understand what you’re trying to accomplish, and tell you how most effectively to get there through the legal landscape you face.
4. Cancel an Appointment or Show Up Late
When you cancel on your lawyer, she incurs an actual opportunity cost. Unbooked time for a lawyer is the equivalent of spoiled produce or destroyed inventory — it’s money directly out of her pocket. When you’re late, you throw the rest of that lawyer’s calendar off for the day, making them fall on their sword for later appointments. It’s bad manners and unprofessional.
Things come up. If you need to cancel or be late, it’s good form to give your lawyer as much advance notice as possible. But even better: schedule a little extra time, show up a few minutes early, and don’t over-schedule around meetings with counsel (the same applies for doctors, accountants, or any busy professional).
5. Mooch Free Advice
If your friend works for an airline, you wouldn’t ask him to give you a free ticket to Hawaii. And you wouldn’t ask your CPA to prepare your taxes for free. So why would you expect free legal advice from your lawyer?
If you have a good working relationship with your lawyer, he or she will be happy to listen for free and tell you whether you need legal advice. (You may be surprised at how candid lawyers can be about this — even though they sell legal advice, they will tell you if you don’t need it.)
When you need legal advice, don’t try to get it on the sly, or worse, try to guilt your lawyer (or a friend or relative who’s a lawyer) into giving you free legal advice.
Good, timely legal advice can save you a world of headache. It’s valuable. You should budget for some advice, and happily pay when you need it.
6. Give Incomplete Information (or Worse, Lie)
Your lawyer is on your team, and more importantly, what you tell your lawyer is protected by the attorney-client privilege. That privilege exists so that you can be completely candid with your lawyer. You can, and should, tell him or her all of the facts — including those that don’t support your case.
Lawyers can’t fully advocate for you, or give you complete advice, unless they know the whole story. And the worst outcome is that opposing counsel at trial (or a regulatory agency, a newspaper, or witnesses) know something that your lawyer doesn’t. So, no surprises — tell your lawyer the truth, and everything else that’s relevant, even if it’s unflattering or uncomfortable.
7. Pay Late, or Not at All
In your business, you have good clients and crummy clients. Some work with you, pay you on time, help you make your products or services better. They are business partners, and you will bend over backwards for them.
But some of your clients are crummy. They pay late, they hassle you on the price of your work, they’re unkind to your team members, and they complain unproductively.
Law is a business, too. And you can decide what kind of client you are. Do unto your lawyers as you would have your clients do to you. Pay on time, be a good partner, and offer criticism constructively. You’ll have a better relationship, and your lawyers will bend over backwards for you.
Ed Walters is the CEO of Fastcase, an online legal research service based in Washington, D.C. He previously was a lawyer at Covington & Burling in Washington and Brussels, where he represented clients such as Microsoft, Merck, the NFL and the NHL.
Originally published: Jan 10, 2012