In a certain episode of Matlock, a popular TV courtroom drama from the 1980s and 1990s, the lead character, Attorney Ben Matlock, portrayed by veteran actor Andy Griffith, almost drops the case of a young woman on trial for murder for one simple reason: She exhibits an attitude as foul as the smell of sewage that has flooded a basement. She stays out late, parties, and carries herself in a way that shows that she is basically indifferent to the murder charge that’s against her. She shows a profound disrespect towards Matlock, addressing him by his first name, despite his being decades older than she is, and telling him to “lighten up.”
Indeed, if you want a quality attorney to provide the best work possible–whether to keep you out of jail or to help you win a lawsuit–then you must take him–and his time–seriously. If you expect him to treat you–and your case–with respect, then you must show him the respect due him as a counselor. Following these guidelines will ensure that you have a productive relationship with the person you’ve chosen to represent you in court.
General Rules of Respect
First, it’s important to show up at any meetings between you and your prospective lawyer on time. Remember that just as you value your time, attorneys think of theirs as important. Do not keep an attorney waiting. In the event of an unforeseen difficulty, call ahead and let him know you will be late. Tell him why, and inform him of what time you anticipate being able to appear.
Second, turn your cell phone off, or place it on vibrate prior to the meeting. There is nothing more disrespectful of an attorney’s time than allowing your cell phone to go off during your conversation, when he is trying to get the facts in your case together, and worse yet, taking the call. Remember that this is a professional who makes his living researching cases, and setting up interviews with other clients.
Third, take your cues of how your prospective attorney wants you to address him by the way he addresses you. If he addresses you as Mr. Jones, that is a sign that you must refer to him as Attorney Smith, or Mr. Smith. He is a professional; he is not there to be your best buddy. He is to provide a service for you–one for which you are to pay him for.
Speaking of pay–that is a conversation you need to have with your prospective attorney upfront. You have the right to know how much he is expecting you to pay him for his services before he takes your case. Ask him in a polite, respectful, nonthreatening way. Also, ask him when you’re expected to pay, and get this information in writing. If he’s worth his salt, he will respect you for your professional attitude. Some lawyers don’t want you to pay them unless and until you win. Others expect a pay regardless. But get an understanding before you form a professional relationship with him.
Also, state the facts of the case. Be completely honest; don’t hold anything back. Tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” If an attorney has found out you have later lied or omitted material information, he has every right to drop your case, unless he is a public defender. To this end, be ready to provide the names and contact information of any witnesses who can corroborate your story. This will help your attorney conduct the research he needs to put together for your case. Make sure you’re able to convince the attorney that your case has strength. Most attorneys don’t want to waste their time with a case they do not believe is winnable, or is ethically sound. Typically, a lawyer with a conscience doesn’t want to accept a case in which the evidence points to your guilt–or liability, depending on the nature of the case, whether it’s criminal or civil. It just puts the person in an awkward position. On the one hand, he must observe attorney-client privilege. On the other, he feels somewhat responsible to report a key fact that may clearly point to the client’s guilt.
Next, do exactly as he tells you to do. Part of his job description is that of counselor. Take that role seriously, and follow his counsel to the letter, without whining, complaining or attitude. For example, if he asks you to refrain from speaking to the press, or even to family members–about your case, he has a reason for it.
Also, conduct yourself in court in a manner that is conducive to scoring a win with the judge–and the jury, if it happens to be a criminal case. Dress conservatively, and be there on time. Do not meet every instance of opposition with an outcry. Calling the prosecution, or the plaintiff, a liar, does not help your case with the judge, and won’t fly with your attorney either. Remember, your lawyer is responsible to the judge for your behavior in that courtroom.
An attorney has a duty to provide the best defense possible for you. But as a client, you have a part to play in order to make it work. You must demonstrate that your case has merit, and you must be teachable. Although I am not an attorney, but an educator by trade, I understand Mr. Matlock’s frustration with the disrespectful defendant who was charged with murder, based on my dealing with the behaviors of teenagers in the classroom. Indeed, displaying an attitude that you know more than I do, when I am the experienced professional, is likely to be a wholesale turnoff which would be likely to get me to invite you to seek legal help elsewhere.