Believe it or not, there are some good reasons why you should make your lawyer’s life easier. If it saves them time, it could save you money. And even if it doesn’t, doing your part to remove obstacles to them doing their job has got to make sense.
See this article in Rocket Lawyer for some general advice about how to get the best out of your legal representative. It highlights the need to:
- tell them what your problem actually is (sounds obvious, but it is sometimes difficult to explain it);
- ask them to explain when you don’t understand what they are telling you;
- tell them the truth. A saying among us lawyers is that we are often the last to hear the truth. My experience is that, when I do finally find out what’s going on, I have to say, “If you had told us at the beginning we could have fixed it . . . Now it may be too late.”
Giving Us Documents
What I will focus on is how you send information to your lawyer. In our immigration practice, a big part of our work is preparing sets of supporting evidence for things like visa applications and appeals. Even just a few years ago, most of that involved collecting and sorting pieces of paper. But technology has swept us into the age of “everything online”. For instance, most New Zealand visa applications can now be filed electronically.
This means that we deal in folders full of documents every day – usually, in the form of .pdfs. This material needs to be sorted into some kind of meaningful order, because ultimately we use this evidence to tell your story in the way that is most beneficial to you. This exercise can make up a major part of the time we spend working on someone’s case.
“Well, that makes sense, that’s a lawyer’s job”. Quite true. But we are also reliant upon dealing with what our clients give us, and how they do it. This ought to be a collaborative exercise because we both want the same outcome. Some people work with us very well, and others don’t. This may be because dealing with lots of documents is not what they do very often. Or it may be because they figure that it’s the lawyer’s job to sort out that pile of raw material. Either way, it leads to outcomes that are not in their best interests.
Firstly, if you are paying your lawyer by the hour, do you want to be charged for billable time spent doing what you might have been able to do yourself? Definitely not. Why pay a lawyer more than you have to? Some people might ask, “Why pay a lawyer at all?” but we won’t go there right now.
Secondly, in a disordered pile of material, perhaps hundreds of pages, things get overlooked. Important things, things that can mean the difference between success and failure, a gain or a loss. While it is the lawyer’s job to identify that smoking gun, or that trump card (excuse the expression), anything that can smooth the way for him or her to locate it has to be valuable.
What Can You Do to Help?
Here, I will use the common scenario of a bunch of .pdfs. We usually get these as a series of email attachments, on a USB stick, or via a file sharing service like DropBox.
- Use a folder structure where you can group documents of a similar type together. Hopefully, from talking with your lawyer, you have some idea of the key themes of the job they are working on. Try to follow that. We usually find that, even if someone has made an imperfect attempt to organise things in this way, it makes a world of difference;
- Name the documents so that someone else knows what they are. Sending a set of files with the titles “scan 001”, “scan 002” etc. is not helpful. Again, there’s that risk of missing the key letter or report among all the other anonymous documents;
- Emails – DON’T send 20 emails with 1 attachment each. Not only does this clog up someone’s Inbox, it also adds to the time needed to extract each one and work out where it fits in the scheme of the assignment;
- Give us a roadmap of what you are sending. If it is being emailed, include a numbered list of what is attached. If it is on a USB or on DropBox, we have found it really useful when clients have included a simple Table of Contents document which uses the same names as the documents or folders which it refers to;
- A large number of small documents of the same type can be combined into a single, larger .pdf. The classic example is bank statements or invoices. Even if you don’t subscribe to paid software that can do this, there are some cheap or free apps out there – just Google for them. At the same time, make sure that the documents are arranged in a sensible order. Date order is often what we like to work with best, although the situation may suggest a more useful arrangement to you;
- People often send us a pile of letters or forms taken as a photo with the camera on their smartphone. This will be because they don’t believe that they have access to anything better, and sometimes that may be true. In other cases, though, it would help us if they tried a bit harder. One reason for this is that the images are usually not very good. The lighting is poor, or the words on a page are not clear, or part of the page is cut off entirely. If you don’t have a scanner, consider using an internet cafe or other service to get it done.
If you don’t know how your lawyer wants to receive the material you will send – Ask. Then, if they can’t be bothered to tell you how to make their lives easier, think about moving on if you can. A cooperative client is a great client, and should not be brushed off.
What About Fixed Fees?
Unlike some law firms, Laurent Law quotes and charges a fixed fee for a lot of the instructions we receive. There are good reasons for us to do this, as we explain on our website. The reader could then be forgiven for thinking that saving a lawyer some time doesn’t matter, because it won’t change what they pay, or how the job turns out.
This is not true. While we do set fees for types of work that we see regularly, these figures are partly based on the amount of time we expect to spend on doing that work. If most of that time is taken up in sorting out someone else’s mess, we will inevitably be pushed to give less time to the “lawyer stuff”, where we can really add value. Law is a business like any other. Its stock, its inventory, is made up of the intellectual capital of its legal professionals, and the number of useful hours in a day. That time is a scarce resource, and the time allocated to your case is never going to be infinite.
If you are not sure what we want, or how we want it, then ask us to tell you. Then give it to us like that, as best you can. I believe that there is a direct correlation between the level of cooperation in this area, and the positive outcomes in the work we do. And that, of course, is why you came to a lawyer in the first place, isn’t it?