Let me start by saying this: you shouldn't be cold-calling a lawyer in the first place.
By that I mean you shouldn't be calling a lawyer because you found him in the Yellow Pages, or because her web site was on the first page of Google results, or because the firm has a bitchin' Twitter feed.
If you need a lawyer, you should be calling one based on the recommendation of someone you trust.
You should be asking friends, and relatives, and co-workers, and your doctor, and your accountant, and your pastor, and your neighbor who is a lawyer, if they can recommend a lawyer with the specialty you need. If they can't, see if they can recommend any lawyer, and then ask that lawyer for a referral to someone with the specialty you need. When people are recommending a lawyer based on their own experience, ask them these questions: was the lawyer honest? Was she responsive to calls and emails? Did he charge [what the client saw as] a reasonable fee? Did the lawyer produce results? Did those results bear any relation to what the lawyer promised? If the person you are asking says that their friend or relative had a good experience with a lawyer, ask if you can talk directly to that friend or relative about their experience.
In short, get a referral from a human being with experience with the lawyer. If possible, if that person had a good experience with the lawyer in question, ask them to make a call to introduce you and tell the lawyer you will be calling, and then call the lawyer yourself.
However, on occasion, you'll need a lawyer with an obscure specialty, or in a remote area where you don't know anyone, or you won't have time to seek a recommendation, or you'll be a reclusive misfit with no friends like me, and you'll not be able to six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon your way into a connection with the sort of lawyer you need. In these circumstances, you might find one online, through a Google search or a lawyer search site or in the Yellow Pages. You might even call the local Bar Association — though in my experience you might as well ask the cat.
So — you have a name. Either it's the name of someone who has been recommended to you, and they are expecting your call, or it's someone who was on the first page of Google results for +oh +shit +need +lawyer +Pismo Beach +dwarf +public +indecency +hedge-clippers or something.
What do you need to do?
Prepare for the call: Oh, sweet Jesus, please prepare for the call. Here's what that means:
1. If you've been sued, or subpoenaed, or searched, or arrested, you've almost certainly received some papers. Look at them. What court is this in? Is it civil or criminal (that means are you being charged with a crime by the government or sued by someone for money?) Does it say "Superior Court" or "United States District Court" or what? Be as familiar as you possibly can with the papers, and have them in front of you when you call. If you don't have the ability to fax or scan documents to get them to the lawyer, figure out ahead of time how you will do so, by going to Kinkos or a friend's house or something. If you have trouble understanding it, ask a friend to go over it with you. If you call a lawyer and don't know whether the case is criminal or civil and don't know what court it is in, the lawyer will suspect that representing you will frequently involve gritting his teeth to stop from screaming at you.
2. Especially if you are calling a lawyer to talk about suing someone rather than facing criminal charges or a lawsuit against you, think about how to explain what you want. If you can't summarize what the problem is and what you want in four sentences, keep thinking until you can. This is especially a problem if you are one of those people, bless their hearts, who cannot explain a straightforward situation in less time it would take James Joyce fully to explore the tension between autonomy and religion. Here's a good example of a summary to start a conversation with a lawyer: "I think I want to sue someone for defamation. My coworker went around telling people that I peed in the coffee pot again, and people have been making fun of me and they put me on the night shift." Or maybe "I want to sue my business partner because we had a contract to split profits from a business and I think he's been cooking the books to hide profits." Rule of thumb: a summary does not have supporting cast, characterization, multiple settings, chapters, or leitmotifs.
Why is that important? Because lawyers are irritated by people who can't convey information succinctly. Lawyers want to go back to screaming at associates and billing current clients, not listen to someone who can't get to the point. Lawyers think, probably correctly, that if you can't discipline yourself to start with a brief summary, then their entire experience with you will be miserable. Every call will be a marathon, and you'll be impossible to prepare for deposition or trial testimony. Are you worried that you only have one shot at telling the lawyer every single fact they will ever need to know? That's not right. Lawyers will ask pertinent follow-up questions to get more detail necessary to evaluate your case. In fact, the lawyer is waiting impatiently to do that right now while you natter on about what someone said to someone else on an occasion entirely irrelevant to the legal issue presented. If you're someone who simply cannot cut to the chase, even when gently encouraged, the lawyer may well decide she doesn't want this case and check out mentally, waiting for a lull in your life story to say this isn't her practice area.
So: prepare for the call the way you would for a wedding toast at a wedding where the mother of the bride is sitting next to you and is notoriously violent and has personally informed you that if you speak for more than forty-five seconds she will be jabbing you in the crotch with an oyster fork.
3. Think about what you want. If you haven't thought up front about whether you are interested in suing or not, and whether or not you are willing to pay any money for legal services, then you're wasting time. Of course you'll want the lawyer's advice, and want to know what the lawyer would charge, and so forth. But don't go into a call like a blank slate without reflecting on what your goals are. The lawyer is not a therapist.
Don't be a know-it-all:
Look. Do you go to the doctor with an unpleasant discharge and argue with the doctor's diagnosis of the clap because you think based on your extensive familiarity with the first three seasons of House that the symptoms seem more like syphilis? Probably not. So, if you need a lawyer to advise you, why the fuckity fuckity fuck are you arguing with the lawyer based on an understanding of the law cultivated by CSI and your aunt Bernice who reads lots of detective novels? Nothing will turn off a lawyer faster than a potential client who must win every conversation, even if the conversation is one in which the client is seeking important advice about an issue on which he is abjectly ignorant. This is in part because lawyers themselves are mostly people who must win conversations and resent you treading on their patch.
This doesn't mean that you're dumb and the lawyer is smart. But you don't necessarily need a lawyer who is smart; you need one who is honest, knowledgeable, and experienced. Albert Einstein or Doogie Howser can get you lethally injected just as fast as a dumb guy if they decide to try their hand at criminal defense; the guy who got Cs all through high school and college can get you off because he's done it hundreds of times and is frankly too jaded to bother lying to you about it.
So: go into the conversation that you are consulting a subject-matter-expert to learn something. Don't be the guy who has never figured out how to replace the batteries in his mouse but still argues with tech support on principle. If what the lawyer says sounds wrong to you, then call a different lawyer and get another opinion. And if you truly do have some specialized legal knowledge, like you know that general legal principles do not apply to your case under the Special Snowflake Act of 2011, and this lawyer doesn't seem to share that specialized legal knowledge, then he's not the right lawyer for you anyway. Go into the discussion to learn and evaluate, not to argue or persuade. Be prepared for the possibility that the law might be something other than what you expect based on your life experiences. A lawyer is not there to tell you what you want to hear. If you insist on a lawyer who will only tell you what you want to hear, you will eventually wind up with one who is (1) meek, and therefore a shitty lawyer, (2) dishonest, and therefore a shitty lawyer, or (3) so desperate for work that they will put up with your bullshit, and therefore a shitty lawyer.
Also, when you're talking to the lawyer, would it really kill you to let the lawyer finish a sentence now and then?
Give a little thought to timing:
On the one hand, if you hear you've been sued or charged or wronged or something, don't start calling lawyers in a panic before you've learned anything. If you're going to be telling the lawyer "my husband says we've been served with legal papers, but I haven't driven home to see them yet and I haven't called him back so I don't know anything, but can you take my case?", then you're wasting time. If you are calling to say "somebody said something bad about me in a newspaper article that I haven't read yet," then you're wasting time.
On the other hand, don't procrastinate. Don't wait to call until the day before that hearing or trial or briefing due-date. If the judge gave you 30 days to do something, don't start calling on day 25. Lawyering is not rocket science, but it's usually not like replacing the toner in the printer either. It can take time to be prepared to do the job right, and the lawyer probably isn't sitting there playing minesweeper waiting for your call; she's got other clients.
Bear in Mind That Lawyers Are Sort of Like People Too, In A Way:
Do you deal with "the public," or "clients," or with strangers asking you for things, in your life? Then you have a sense of what it's like. Lawyers can be insufferable, sure. But you're not talking to a lawyer because he's asking you for a favor. You're asking the lawyer to work for you. And lawyers are human, at least in the bundle-of-flaws sense. So if you are curt and abrupt, if you are openly incredulous at what the lawyer says, if you treat the lawyer openly like someone who is out to cheat you (as opposed to doing so subtly, which is perfectly sensible), if you can't let the lawyer speak a complete sentence without interrupting, if you negotiate in a contemptuous manner as if you are buying a fake Rolex off a guy in an alley, then the lawyer is not going to be enthused about you, and his vestigial humanity is going to lead him to turn you down or charge you more or resent you and work less hard for you. He can't spit in your food the way waiters will if you act like bad consumers, but he can do stuff that's far, far worse. Pretend that the lawyer is a human being with feelings, and things will go much smoother. (But note: do not carry this too far. Get second opinions, exercise skepticism, and do not under any circumstances attempt to have sexual intercourse with the lawyer, or make sudden movements in his presence, particularly while he is eating.)
This is merely a guide for how to handle the initial call with a lawyer when you are seeking counsel. Look for a future guide on sealing the deal with a lawyer and the care and feeding of your lawyer.
Note: if you are saying "I can't believe he thinks he has to tell people these things," then you do not deal with the public on a regular basis.
Edited to add: RL Mullen asked a question that he may have meant ironically, but bears addressing seriously: if you get arrested, should you ask your bail bondsman for an attorney recommendation?
My answer is the Platonic ideal of an attorney response: maybe yes, maybe no; it could work out great, or you could get utterly shafted. Some bail bondsmen take kickbacks for referrals, or have cross-referral agreements, and send clients to similarly seedy and questionable lawyers. They're in it for the one-time-customer volume. On the other hand, some bail bondsmen are reputable and recommend lawyers they think are trustworthy and reasonably priced. They're in it for repeat business and word-of-mouth — they want their clients to have a good experience with their lawyers, because they want their clients to come back if they get arrested again, and because they don't want to develop a reputation for being associated with crappy lawyers.
In general, if you select a quality, reputable bail bonds company, you can at least consider their recommendation of an attorney. When you contact that attorney, carefully evaluate whether the attorney gives you individualized attention and seems interested in your case; if the lawyer has a secretary or paralegal interview you, or seems sleazy or fly-by-night, run the other way.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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