Law Practice Tip #2: Evaluate a case in 15 minutes

If you’re a lawyer, time is your commodity, and it’s limited. When a potential client (a “PC”)  walks in the door, you have just a few minutes to evaluate their case and get the case started, or realize that the case is a complete waste of time, for you and the PC, and send the PC on their way… that or face the prospect of losing time and money spent on better, winnable, and paying cases. It’s better to figure out if the case is worth taking in the first fifteen minutes.

With that in mind, Alan Inglis has provided some excellent steps to take during that initial client interview, steps that can keep the process focused, avoid wasting time, and get to the crux of the matter: is this a case you should take? Writing in the ABA’s GPSOLO, he says that interviewing is so important a skill “that it should be taught in law school as it is in medical school and journalism school.”

Before the interview even starts, make sure the PC fills out an intake form with name, address, phone numbers, and so on. This is not your job–email it in advance, or have an assistant do it. If you’re doing it during the interview, you’re wasting time.

1. “So, what can I do for you?” Start off with an open-ended question, and let the PC’s story unfold. “Resist the urge to interrupt to attempt to get to the point,” says Inglis. “There is good stuff here.” Take note of facts, note whether the PC seems like a good witness, start to form an idea of what kind of case it is (breach of contract, a tort, and so on). And get an idea of what the PC wants–you can get her compensation, not revenge, “justice,” or punishment of a villain.

2. Ask simple, short-answer questions to fill in the facts, as opposed to emotions, opinions, hear-say, and venting. Inglis suggests walking the PC through the IL outline of elements of each cause of action, sans the legal jargon. Dig hard for facts and ask how the facts can be proven in court. And figure out what the damages are–embarrassment and anger are not damages. No damages, no case.

3. Go through the story again. This time, look at the case as your opponent will. Look for affirmative defenses. Listen for any variances in how the PC tells the story.

4. Suggest a time-and-expenses or a flat-fee engagement to review the case. Unless you’re an expert, thoroughly “understand medicine, engineering, economics, or esoteric discipline is involved,” you will need to do some background research to know if the PC has a good case.

f you suspect PC has a good case, you might want to explain that you can’t give her a good assessment of the case without more work; suggest a time-and-expenses or flat-fee engagement limited to completing that assessment. Explain exactly what work finishing the assessment will entail. This also is a good reality check for PC. If PC can’t understand why it is necessary to read the 500 pages or get information from an expert and that you are willing to do that without her coughing up a much larger retainer for a much greater commitment, you probably don’t want PC as a client.

5. Lead the PC through the process. Usually a PC is not going to know what he is getting into, so walk through what is going to happen. Outline the major stages, leaving out, again, the legal jargon. As you do, as short-answer questions to determine if the PC has the emotional, economic, time and support resources necessary to take the case through trial. It may not be necessary, but you don’t know that.

The last points that Inglis makes are important: first, remember that, as a doctor of the night-time drama House often says, “everybody lies.This includes potential witnesses and your client, whether intentionally or not. Second, potential witnesses don’t know the difference between evidence (which tends to prove a fact) and opinion, hearsay, or emotion. Help them understand, and keep asking “how can we prove that” over and over, says Inglis. “Make it your mantra.”

The last word is mine. Take paying clients. A colleague  recently related an experience where  discussed an issue with a PC over the phone. It was fairly straight forward and simple, and he knew how to do it. He said as much, and then offered, sui generous, to diminish his fee because it would not take very much time. The response? The PC said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to tell the kids that they can’t have Christmas because I had to pay the lawyer.” She assumed that he should just do the work for free…because she needed it. While I agree that there is no reason to gauge clients, I also believe there are very few reasons to do all of your work for free. Lawyers need to eat, too. If a client cannot or will not pay, they probably should not be pursuing a legal remedy.

Read Alan L. Inglis’ full article, How to Evaluate a Case in 15 Minutes,  here.

Previous posts in my Legal Practice Tips series can be found in the archives here.

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