How to Contact an Attorney for the First Time

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

What’s the best way to contact an attorney for possible legal representation?

Some approaches can cause problems or scare off the lawyer whose services you seek. Thus, a few suggestions:

1. Call rather than sending an email. Don’t start with sending an email describing your situation. Doing so creates two problems.

First, an attorney needs to run a “conflict check” before receiving information from you. Legal ethics rules require the attorney to check to see if representing you would conflict with any current or past legal representation that attorney or his firm has undertaken. That attorney should start the conversation with those screening questions.

Second, starting with such an email can come off as seeking free legal advice. That will cause some attorneys to write you off.

Many attorneys routinely delete without reading email that lays out a person’s legal situation because of fear of learning information that would disqualify that attorney or his firm from continuing to represent one of its current clients or from representing another potential client.

2. Try to call from a landline and, if the potential representation is for a business, call from that business.

Attorneys notice what shows up on caller ID. Making the initial call from a cell phone can give the impression that you are unsophisticated in business or that you don’t have the wherewithal to hire an attorney.

If the representation is for you personally, don’t call on your employer’s phone or during employed work time.

3. When you call, fully introduce yourself. I get many calls where the caller doesn’t even give a name up front. The caller just starts with “I have a question . . .” and then launches into the question.

Give your full name and, if you are calling on behalf of the business, the name of that business and your position with it.

If the attorney doesn’t prompt you to do so, then give a short statement of the nature of your legal need and list who else is in the picture, to nudge the attorney to do a conflict check.

You want that conflict check done up front so that you don’t later lose the service of that attorney when the conflict later becomes evident, and so that you don’t inadvertently give information to a lawyer who might be on the other side of your matter.

For example, you could say “Hi, I’m Jane Doe, and I’m the owner of Little Business. I’m looking for assistance in preparing a contract to sell my company. The potential buyer is Acme Company, and the bank financing the purchase is Capital Bank. I’d like to see if your firm would be able to represent my business.”

4. Don’t try to get free legal advice. Instead, make it clear that you’re looking to hire an attorney.

Understand that an attorney’s sole product is his time. In some kinds of representation, the attorney might charge a flat legal fee in lieu of charging for his time, but don’t assume that. Flat fees don’t work in many situations.

A caller will often say, “I don’t need to hire a lawyer, I just need to ask some questions.” Answering legal questions is legal representation for which the lawyer could reasonably asked to paid, not only because of the time taken, but because of the risk of committing malpractice if the answers are wrong.

That said, many lawyers will not charge you for the initial conversation (say, the first 15-20 minutes) if they feel that doing so might lead to paid representation and if they feel that the caller isn’t just trying to get free legal advice.

Also, expect for the lawyer to ask for an advance payment on legal fees before commencing work.

5. Don’t wait until the last minute to call the attorney. It often takes longer to handle a legal matter than you might think, and the attorney you seek might be busy. Also, calling at the last minute is a sign of being unsophisticated, which can scare off some lawyers.

6. Ask how the attorney charges for his services. Is it an hourly fee, flat fee, or some combination thereof? Offer to pay for an initial meeting to assess your situation.

Most importantly, if you are interested in hiring that attorney after the preliminary discussion, ask the attorney for a copy of his written representation agreement, for you to read and potentially sign. He should have one that spells out all of the terms of the representation and relationship, such as how the attorney charges and when bills are due.

Also, understand that, outside of personal injury or medical malpractice, it’s unusual for an attorney to accept a case on a contingency fee, which is where the lawyer’s fee is solely a share of the money won in a case. If that’s what you’re looking for, be upfront so you don’t waste the attorney’s time and yours.

If you say you’re just looking for a price quote for doing a legal job, that’s a hint that you may be shopping for the cheapest attorney regardless of quality or that you don’t understand that quality matters. Doing so will run off many good attorneys, and you’ll probably get what you pay for.

7. Once the attorney agrees to communicate with you by email, be careful about which email account you use.
The goal here is to not destroy the confidentiality of your communication with your lawyer, which is the “attorney-client privilege” in legal jargon.

Thus, if the legal representation is for you personally, don’t use your employer-provided email account, and don’t use an email account that you share with someone else, such as a spouse or child.

On the other hand, if the matter is for your business, use your business email account.

Written on January 22, 2013
By John B. Farmer
© 2013 Leading-Edge Law Group, PLC. All rights reserved.