How to Hire A Lawyer Part One: It All Begins With You

Why You Should Hire A Lawyer

Over the years, I have developed a reputation for taking difficult, messed-up legal problems and fixing them for my clients. I am not sure how I ended up in this niche. But I can tell you that nearly all terrible legal messes that have been dropped on my lap have one thing in common: the client did not hire a lawyer [or a good lawyer] until it was nearly too late. This typically results in far more stress and expense for the client than had I been hired before the problem.

Arduous Rock climb helping hand big sky

Step One: It All Begins With You

Know your feelings about lawyers and identify any resistance you have to hiring one. Until you know what your sticking points are, you will not be able to find a lawyer who can address them. Think about whether you can commit to hiring a lawyer whom you can trust on a deep level. Once you are clear in yourself, you can find the right lawyer for you.

Reasons People Give Me On Why They Try to DIY Legal Work

If you have before or are considering now skipping the lawyer to do things yourself, you aren’t alone. Do any of these reasons for such a decision sound familiar?

  • “I am a sophisticated and successful person. I understand things.”
  • “I can read about this legal issue on the internet.”
  • “I don’t like lawyers.”
  • “I can call the plaintiff and reason with them.”
  • “I don’t think this is a big deal.”
  • “I haven’t been contacted by the plaintiff since being sued. No news is good news.”
  • “Lawyers are too expensive and a rip-off.”
  • “This issue is frivolous.”
  • “Why should I have to do anything? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

I challenge you to consider this statement thoughtfully: those reasons are nothing more than rationalizations of deeper feelings (usually, pride, fear or shame).

These rationalizations are understandable responses to a legal situation. From the outside looking in, legal work may seem like a bunch of needless paperwork causing lots of delays — can’t you just write what you want in the contract without a bunch of hassle? Maybe lawyers seem like they are creating work just to charge you when everyone is otherwise happy without the fuss.

If you are dealing with a conflict, maybe the legal problem seems unfair or overblown. It surprises even sophisticated people that they are not easily resolved with a discussion and reasoning, or by just telling the judge your side of the story.

Or the legal situation causes you anxiety and you would rather not pay attention to it — much less spend money on a lawyer. Legal fees will cause you further stress by reminding you of the problem, and doubly so if they are a strain for you financially. Maybe you do not want to admit that you have anxiety or fear.

To avoid legal disaster, you must recognize these rationalizations for what they are. Then you can overcome them and make healthier choices.

Proverbs 16:18 tells us: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

All of my clients are smart, capable people. I respect their intelligence and their abilities to problem solve. But a truly wise man recognizes that which he does not know. A wise business owner delegates tasks to experts who are better than she at those tasks instead of trying to do and be it all. There is no shame in asking for help from an expert.

And lawyers are experts. Consider that a lawyer goes through three years of law school, passes a bar exam (in California, the pass rate is only 40%), and then spends years practicing and learning from other lawyers until they are competent enough to manage complex cases directly for clients. In fact, I would say that a lawyer with less than eight years’ experience is not experienced enough to handle complex legal work without a senior lawyer’s help. For more routine matters, the lawyer needs at least five years’ experience.

Law is not intuitive. The lawmakers (legislators and judges) are all lawyers and speak the language of law. As a consequence of lifelong training, they apply principles of law that are taught and not necessarily “commonsense.” Legal language is second nature to us lawyers but is frequently lost on non-lawyers — sometimes being invisible as it is still English.

Perhaps you do not like that the law is not easily decipherable by the regular person, but that is the reality.

It is also not a matter of simply looking up information on the internet. Law is not the rote application of written rules. Good lawyers can predict potential future problems (especially when it comes to business deals and contract drafting), based on all the weird things they have seen over the years. They can tell you the reasons for why they write something a certain way. They apply practical risk analysis, weighing factors that may not occur to you. They understand the customs of local courts and judges and have relationships and community resources.

And the best lawyers understand human behavior and can manipulate it (in an ethical, non-evil way). Negotiations, written advocacy and trials are each art forms requiring a delicate understanding of humans. Skillful lawyers do not rely solely on logic or rote memorization of “black letter” law. Nor are they mindless, aggressive bullies. They are like martial arts masters; they are not street thugs or a piece of software.

So believing that you can understand the complexities of the rules that govern society, which have developed over thousands of years and in response to millions of situations, by reading an article on a website, is silly if you think about it. You would not claim to understand the human cardiovascular system after reading an article on WebMD. Trying to practice amateur law is as absurd as practicing amateur medicine. And the consequences can be just as devastating.

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

Law is fundamentally about human relationships. It is about the rules we use to govern how we treat each other. There are bad lawyers, sure. There are greedy lawyers and there are immoral lawyers. But that is no different from the rest of the population. Sadly, the truth is:

Sometimes people will cheat you. Sometimes relationships you have with people will break and turn bitter. Sometimes sh*t happens and everyone looks out for themselves. Sometimes people will betray you.

It is not the lawyer that makes people flawed. The law is the complicated, messy, time-consuming way in which we deal with this reality. The lawyer gets you through the mess.

Why You Should Be Careful When Hiring a Lawyer

Lawyers exist to help you deal with life’s most vexing problems related to your liberty and property. Your lawyer is your friend, your confidant and your champion. You do not want to give someone such a position of trust and esteem lightly.

You need a lawyer who is intelligent, skilled, careful and understands your goals. You need to be able to trust your lawyer completely, particularly because you may not always fully understand why she must do something a certain way.

And let’s face it, lawyers are very expensive. The right lawyer will provide you value for your dollar (even if that value is the mitigation of a bigger loss). But again, you do not want to pay those dollars out lightly.

Finally, with the law, you do not get any do-overs. Particularly in a lawsuit, you do not have the luxury to test out different lawyers. You need the right lawyer from the start.

In any legal situation, a lot is at stake. So that is why you must be wise in your choices.

I have already mentioned some of the necessary qualities your lawyer must possess. For example, I have mentioned experience, judgment, artfulness, trustworthiness, intelligence, value and empathy. There are other necessary qualities as well. In the next four parts of this course, I provide you with detailed guidance on how to find a lawyer with these qualities, who is also the right fit for you. Also, please schedule a consultation with our business law attorneys at (800) 449-8992.

Three Things I Learned Sitting On A Jury

courtroom interior emptyI confess. I used to not trust juries. In fact, I did not believe in the jury system. And even though I tried cases to juries, I did not believe in the very people whom I was trying to convince. Honestly, and it pains me to even write this, I thought that most jurors were basically incapable of understanding the law, and didn’t care much either.

But I changed my mind after I sat on a jury in Saint Louis, Missouri. Much to my surprise (and secret delight), I was selected to sit on a jury in a criminal case in the city. It was an assault case that turned on a question of self-defense.

The trial took three days. The last day, while we waited for closing arguments, we sat in the jury room and discussed civil rights. That same week was the week that the Ferguson riots started — just a few miles to the north of the courthouse. I stayed silent and observed the feelings these jurors had about civil rights, civic duty and justice. After closing arguments, we deliberated for two hours before returning a not guilty verdict.

Those three days, and especially those two hours, completely reversed my views on juries. It wasn’t the juries who didn’t understand; it was me! I hadn’t understood the jurors. I learned at least a dozen important things about juries and jury trials in those three days. Here are three.

 

  1. Jurors take their duties very seriously.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that you can trust jurors to take their job seriously. The people who stayed through voir dire did so, in part, because they are honest people who care about civic duty. They chose not to lie or come up with some excuse for why they couldn’t do the job. They chose to turn up, sit there, and answer voir dire questions honestly. They chose to participate.

No one likes jury duty (except clandestine trial lawyers). It is a hardship for people to miss work. The compensation is essentially nothing. Jury duty is boring. Procedures that result in the jury waiting is confusing to them; they have to sit around wondering when they will be called back into the courtroom and what is going to happen next. The chairs are uncomfortable. The jurors are hot, or cold, or sleepy, or cramped, and they can’t even get a cup of coffee.

And what is the thanks for sitting quietly for days in a proceeding that feels like watching the DMV process new drivers? Jurors are asked to make a decision about someone’s life, liberty or property — a decision that has serious, meaningful consequences to the people involved. And that is a burden.

So who would do this? It is the people with enough integrity to not lie or make excuses during voir dire. These are the same people who pay their taxes, do their jobs, and take part in society just because you are supposed to. For that reason alone, I learned I could trust the jury. On a Monday morning, each one of those people was honest for honesty’s own sake. And on Wednesday afternoon, I saw during deliberations that they cared about doing the right thing and they participated.

 

  1. Lawyers lack empathy for the jury.

As I already said, jury duty is boring. Sadly, the trial is also boring. As jurors, you sit there, feeling mostly ignored. The judge occasionally explains things. But no one looks at you or engages you. Most things are not explained at all. Most of the time, you feel like your time is getting wasted.

Worse, though, is that the lawyers then ask the jury to make a hard decision without much empathy for how that decision-making process affects them. For example, in the criminal case I sat on, we had to decide whether to send a man to jail, which would financially devastate him and deprive his children of a father. We had to decide whether to take away the most precious thing a human being has: their freedom. On the other hand, the victim (a loaded moniker, but I digress) had been injured badly enough that she was in the hospital. She was brave enough to face her assailant in a court of law. Would it be justice to let him go free? What about her physical and emotional well-being?

So as a juror, you feel like wallpaper. Then suddenly, the lawyers ask you to make a very difficult decision about someone else’s life. You have to judge people you do not know, aided only by jury instructions that are incomprehensible to non-lawyers. And the lawyers had no empathy for how that decision would affect the juror. They demonstrated no understanding of what the juror was feeling as an observer to the trial and as someone asked to judge a stranger.

Once I spent a trial in the jury’s shoes, I could see a thousand ways to improve my presentation. But one in particular stands out to me: cross-examination. The prosecutor in my case was very sarcastic during cross-examination of the defendant. That biting cross is what we all think we should do. But the jury hated it. I hated it. Why? Because we did not know the defendant very well, but we did know he was a human being whose fate we had to decide.

In this particular case, the defense attorney failed to humanize the defendant. But that did not matter. We recognized him as human already. And because we recognized him as a human being, we felt sorry for the decision we would have to make about him. We felt sorry for the judgment we would have to make. The prosecutor’s sarcasm just made him more human and had the opposite effect of what she intended.

What I learned is that the lawyer cannot show anger and expect the jury to put anger on like a dress. If the jurors do not feel anger, scathing attacks at cross are going to make the jury dislike the lawyer for being a bully. You have to cross-examine by focusing on the witness, the facts and the motivations of the witness. You can show the jury the truth about someone with the facts. Let the jury decide to be angry for themselves. Attacking someone who is still human to the jury is counterproductive. And it happens solely because as attorneys, we have no empathy for the jury, so we do not realize that it feels bad to judge someone harshly.

 

  1. Jurors read the jury instructions because they are looking to justify the decision they already feel is right. They are tools used to reach a particular result.

It is obvious already that juries are not fact-finding robots who flawlessly apply the facts to the law that they are given in the instructions. What they talk about in the jury room has more to do with what they feel is fair based on common notions in our culture and in our humanity. And they do bring in their outside life experiences to interpret the evidence.

In my one experience, the jurors sought to figure out the facts first. They sought to find the truth of what happened. Indeed, the concept of the burden of proof did not come up until the end. They had to admit to themselves first that they could not figure out what happened on the issue of self-defense; and that is when they looked to the jury instructions to justify an acquittal. (And since the instruction was filled with an absurd repetition of the word “reasonable,” it was more frustrating than helpful at first.)

I used to walk the jurors through the jury instructions as the core organization for my closing. Now I will help them see the truth of what happened first. I will tell them the overall story and ask them for justice. And then, only after doing that, will I point out the key parts of the instructions that they can use as tools to get to justice. Juries are not robots who apply facts to law; they want to know the truth and they want to find justice. Jury instructions are just one of many tools that they will use to get to the result they already feel when they walk back into that deliberation room.

Sitting on a jury was a fascinating and invaluable experience for me as a trial lawyer. It reminded me of something true but often forgotten: jurors are people.