There are so many dramatic, cool-looking television shows and movies about the lives of lawyers that people think they know what the lawyer life is like:
Lawyers wear amazing suits, make impassioned speeches in court, help the hot and troubled stay out of jail, and have witty exchanges with their adversaries before lawyering so well that they cause witnesses to break down on the stand and confess—and then go have drinks at their favorite bar where lawyers and maybe cops like to hang out. The confusion many Americans have about how the law works is even worse than the surface idea of what lawyers do every day.
If you’re like most lawyers, you would like your clients—heck, even their friends—to understand a few things about what you do and what you don’t do, and about what you need from clients to work well for them. The more informed about basic legal concepts a client is, and the more he understands what his lawyer needs him to bring to the table to construct a case, the better job his lawyer can do for him.
Lawyers Don’t Work on Every Type of Law
The lawyer who worked on a divorce case most likely isn’t the right person to help with a startup or represent your sister in a criminal case. Lawyers specialize. There are bankruptcy attorneys, corporate attorneys who work on mergers and acquisitions, criminal defense attorneys, etc., for a reason.
Litigation is not Glamorous; Lawyering Is Mostly About Paperwork
People need to be reminded that those shows and movies are complete fiction—this is not an exaggeration. A lawyer can go years without going to trial, as settling out of court is the most likely outcome for most issues. And when a trial does happen, it’s a tedious, slow process that causes most laypeople to fall asleep by midday.
Working on a case generally means reading long, complicated, not-necessarily-well-written documents; researching laws and statutes; and then writing your own pleadings and memos to argue your points about why and how these laws and statutes apply to your case. Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork.
You Are Only Hurting Yourself If You Lie or Omit Information
Lawyers need clients to be honest—they don’t care about what weird things their clients are into, what dumb decisions they’ve made, or personal drama. They need to know the full details of everything related to the case, no matter how embarrassing. Lying or hiding information can only hurt a case, something too many clients find out the hard way, leaving them with a compromised case and a frustrated lawyer.
Invest in Legal Advice Early Before There’s a Big, Complicated Problem
A common mistake people make is hiring a lawyer after they’re already deep into something, or after (foolishly) trying to handle contracts themselves—almost always because they were trying to save money. An initial consultation and review of documents can save a new business owner thousands of dollars at the start, and prevent her from setting her business up to fail in the long run. Regular consultations with a lawyer can keep everything on track.
Lawyers want clients to stop trying to create their own contracts. Seriously. No matter how intelligent and educated you are, you don’t know the legal ins and outs that lawyers have studies years to learn, the proper terminology, the laws of your state, and a gazillion other details that only a lawyer would even think of. You will save yourself money and stress if you simply let a professional do what he is trained to do.
Be Prepared and Organized
If you’re meeting with a lawyer to discuss, say, a bankruptcy, you know you’ll need to bring in a lot of your financial information. Your lawyer will tell you what documents you need to provide: Listen to her. And when you do provide that information? Please organize it. Put similar types of documents together and order them chronologically. Make sure documents are not missing pages, and don’t try to decide on your own what’s not important. This is true no matter what you’re discussing with your lawyer—she needs organized, complete paperwork concerning a divorce, starting a business, suing an entity, etc.
Listen to your lawyer. He is giving you professional advice based on the law and his experience. He wants the best outcome for you and is paid to be on your side. Disregarding what your lawyer tells you to do—or not do—will only backfire.