How to Work With a Lawyer

by Nicholas Walsh, PA


To make sure you
have the right lawyer,
ask the right questions.


After 29 years in the business, I’ve had all kinds of clients: murderers, millionaires, liars, cheaters, ones who tried to set me up, and a thousand others. But the most fundamental distinction is between clients who waste my time and their money, and the ones who work efficiently with me to get the job done.

The first step to working with a lawyer is finding the right one. Maybe you already have a lawyer you know and trust and for a routine will or transaction that may be just who you need. But if your matter is deadly serious or possibly out of your lawyer’s usual line of work, you owe it to yourself to take care that he or she is competent to do the work. If there’s a lot on the line, you may, as with other vendors and contractors with whom you deal, want to ask whether your lawyer has malpractice insurance in a sufficient amount. Maine does not require lawyers to carry insurance, and some don’t. Others carry it in a minimal amount, perhaps $100,000.00. Everybody makes mistakes, and if your lawyer blows a million dollar claim because he or she misses a filing deadline, that’s no time to find out there’s no policy, or one that’s too small. I’ve seen it happen (not to me).

To make sure you have the right lawyer, ask the right questions. Has the lawyer handled this type of matter before? How often? A really experienced lawyer can save you money by achieving a prompt resolution.

A while back a client told me his son, who served in the Army, was being held in past his discharge date because he faced a loan sharking charge. The boy was in California and the matter would be tried by a court martial. My client asked me to find his son a lawyer. I called a few of the clerks of the courts martial in that area and got the names of several civilian lawyers who regularly tried cases. I interviewed them by phone and asked specific questions. One had much more trial experience than the others. His other credentials checked out. He was expensive, but my client retained him on behalf of his son, and within a few weeks the Army both dismissed the charge and honorably discharged the young man. An expensive lawyer may be cheap at the price.

If your case is one that will be litigated, find out how many trials the lawyer has actually tried, all the way to judgment. If your case will be tried by a jury, how many jury trials has your lawyer tried in the past five years – to judgment? Jury trials are both rare and extremely demanding, but a genuine trial lawyer should be doing one at least every year or two.

Maybe you’re thinking “But don’t most cases settle?” Sure, but settling a claim favorably only happens when the lawyer is truly prepared to try the case in court. You don’t want a lawyer who, with the trial date approaching and the other side calling the lawyer’s bluff with a low-ball offer, panics and tries to settle the case for a big discount rather than try to remember how jury selection works. It happens more often than you’d think.

Now that you’ve got a lawyer, get organized. When at the outset of a case I get a client’s background material (emails, letters, bills, memos etc.) my first challenge is to make sense of it. This takes time, but the better organized my client’s material is when he or she brings it in, the faster the job goes. With any case remotely complex, I often make a duplicate set of emails, messages etc. and place them in chronologic order. That literally requires copying and physical cutting and pasting, it takes hours, and there’s no reason you couldn’t do it yourself.

Tell your lawyer everything that might affect the case. If you’re not sure if a fact is important, tell it. Facts are the tools by which lawyers win cases, so don’t decide by yourself which facts are important.

If your case is in court you will almost certainly have to provide the other side with a response to a document request. One way to lose a case is by failing to produce documents which you have, or which your banker or accountant or other agent has. Yet a client failing to search for documents is a recurring and sometimes very serious problem.

Promptly return your lawyer’s communications. I always ask my clients if there is an email address, but I also ask whether they check it at least twice a day. If you only occasionally check email, make sure your lawyer knows that.

Believe it or not, at least a few times a year I try to reach a client to find the phone number no longer works. If the number works, perhaps I can’t leave a message because “The voice mailbox is not set up.” Seriously, folks.

Pay promptly! I used to tell clients that all my clients fall into three categories, and to a certain extent this is still true. The “A” category is clients who pay promptly. These I will get up in the middle of the night for, and otherwise undertake near-heroic actions. The B category pay 30 days. These get the usual excellent service. The C category owes me money. These last clients – not so much.

Stay out of trouble.

Nicholas Walsh is an admiralty attorney with an office in Portland, Maine. He may be reached at 207-772-2191, or