A post in which a businessman feeds himself to a shark, er, lawyer.

You own a small business. You provide a service or a product. Then one day, you get a letter.

No, it’s not a letter of gratitude from a happy client. Actually, it is just the opposite. Somewhere along the way, one of your well-meaning employees messed up on a job. It caused a lot of damage. And the letter is from a lawyer. Not a friendly-to-your-business type lawyer. Quite the contrary. It’s one of those you-caused-a-lot-of-damage-and-you-gotta-pay-for-it types. The ones that insurance companies own in droves.

You’re getting sued.

So, naturally, you put the letter away. You’ll get to it later. When you think about it. If you think about it.

Or maybe you could just clear this up now. You call the lawyer, explain what happened, give him details of the situation, how your business works, and ask his advice, his mercy, his clemency.

News flash: he’s not going to give it to you.

Both actions would be mistakes. Potentially large mistakes. Just listen to Patrick‘s experience (and a clue–he’s the lawyer, not you):

Just before leaving the office last night I got a call from Greg, of Greg’s Quality Plumbing.  Greg does seem, on the phone anyway, to be a quality plumber: a nice guy running a six employee shop for new construction and homeowners.  Unfortunately one of Greg’s employees made a mistake, overtightening a compression nut on the toilet water supply line in a very expensive house insured by BigState Casualty Insurance Company.  The nut eventually fractured,over Christmas vacation with the family out of town, and the water flowed for days.  BigState paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the waterlogged house, and wants its money back.  From Greg’s Quality Plumbing.

And so Greg got my letter, and Greg picked up the phone to sort this all out, and to set me straight. […]

Can you see the train wreck coming? Can you sense the inevitability of the disaster “Greg” has just created for himself?

[…]  As I said, I have no doubt Greg is a quality plumber but Greg is an absolute amateur when it comes to dealing with sharks in the water.  He made a number of serious mistakes, feeding me information about his business, the employee who did the work, the general contractor who built the house and will be cross-claiming against Greg in the coming lawsuit, and Greg’s business assets.  All while trying to set me straight.

In the end, Greg did not set me straight.  What he accomplished was to give me information I will use against him at his deposition and at trial.  He kneecapped the defense attorney his insurance company will retain, an attorney who won’t even hear about the dispute between BigState and Greg’s Quality Plumbing for several months.  I almost feel sorry for Greg, who came into the conversation with high hopes that he would frighten me off or convince me that I have no case against him.

“Kneecapped” is a great way to describe how Greg’s eventual attorney is going to feel when he finally gets his hands on the file.

What should Greg have done?

Patrick, the very guy Greg was “gushing” to (no pun intended), has a few choice pieces of advice that business owners would be wise to learn if they’re going to avoid the disaster Greg created, for a disaster is what it was (and I’m not talking about the compression nut).

Check out the ten suggestions he at the original post here, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorites:

1. When you get a letter from a lawyer, read it. Read it immediately. Read it more than once. Then take a short break, and read it again.  When Greg called me, he told me he “wanted to find out what all of this was about.”  If Greg had bothered to read my letter, which detailed exactly what we think the problem was, what we want from Greg, and how to give us what we want, he wouldn’t have needed to call me. And he wouldn’t have answered a bunch of my questions as I pretended to search my files and databases to get to the bottom of the problem in BigState v. Greg’s Quality Plumbing.

There’s nothing worse than unnecessary, self-imposed pain and suffering, but that’s exactly what Greg is doing to himself. He’s talking to a lawyer, but a lawyer who owes a duty to another client, not him. This lawyer is not your friend. Stop talking. Call your own lawyer.

2.  Don’t be an ostrich. Don’t ignore the problem: It won’t go away. I’ve spent most of my career defending clients for insurance companies, so I’ve ceased being amazed at how people hide their heads in the sand when they get bad news. But they do. They even get a “letter”, by certified mail, that says CIVIL SUMMONS with another “letter” titled COMPLAINT attached, and file it away, meaning to get around to responding to it. They violate rule #1, failing to read the Summons which clearly states that they have 30 days to respond, in writing filed with the clerk of court, or something bad will happen to them. After you’ve read the letter, you need to frame a response. And that response should not come from you.

You know who you are. You’ve got a pile of “stuff” that you’ll go through eventually, and you’ll deal with it when it’s convenient…meanwhile, time is ticking…

4.  Shut up. Wise advice, that applies to civil matters as much as criminal cases. Don’t call the lawyer who sent you “the letter” to “set him straight”. You won’t solve the problem on the phone.  But you might hang yourself.

Click the link. Really. Here it is again, if you missed it. Just shut up. (and ignore the profanity).

Read the post. It’s wise advice there (“keep your files,” “don’t be penny-wise but pound-foolish,” and “call your insurance company”), and it might just save you a buck or two when you get that letter.

Whatever you do, don’t just file the letter. Read it.

(h/t Popehat)

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