One of the toughest aspects of being an attorney (especially a solo) is that you can find yourself living in your own little bubble. Whether you are calling another member of your firm, or another attorney that you know, reaching out for help is easier said than done.
Regardless who you ask, be respectful of the other attorney’s time and advice.
Step 1: Know What You Need To Ask
It is best to determine how much help you need before picking up the phone. To get started, here are some basic questions you should ask yourself.
Do you need information on one or two issues related to the claim?
How much time will you need to discuss your questions?
Do you need to be taught a practice area?
The answers to those questions should guide how you ask for help, and what kind of help you are asking for.
You should also use the correct medium when requesting assistance. I would much rather have a ten minute call than a chain of emails throughout the day. If it is a detailed discussion, I would prefer lunch for an hour over numerous phone calls. However, it’s always good policy to ask the person what they prefer first.
If you think you need more than a lunch meeting, then you should really consider asking someone to co-counsel or simply refer the case. There is nothing more awkward (and frustrating) than someone that buys you lunch, and then regularly wants to “bounce a few ideas off of you.” If they are someone you just met, you are burning down that bridge before you can even build it.
Step 2: Be Respectful of Their Time and Schedule
Do not call someone out of the blue at 3:30 in the afternoon, and tell them you need to talk them right away about a case.
At that time of day, most attorneys are either putting out their own fires on a case, or starting to plow through work pushed aside earlier in the day. This is especially true if you do not know the person.
To be fair, there are situations where you might need an immediate answer. If that is the case, try reaching out to attorneys you have built relationships with. I would happily take phone calls from my close colleagues at any time of the day.
If you need to cold call someone, make sure your introduction follows these three important rules: you are respectful of their time, you have an estimate of how much time you need, and you offer an opportunity to set a meeting at their convenience.
If you are asking the right person for help, they are probably busy, so make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. If you send an email or leave a voicemail and do not get an immediate response, wait a few days. Remember that your emergency is not another attorney’s emergency.
Step 3: Respect Their Advice
If you are asking for advice, it is likely you are unsure of your client, the case, and procedural status. You may not be clueless, but you lack confidence in your position.
Keep that in mind when you ask for advice. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing over an interpretation of the law, facts, rules, and just straight up ignoring rock solid advice or common sense.
For example, I regularly get calls from attorneys that want to pursue a claim under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The FDCPA protects consumers against abusive and unfair debt collection. It also requires that the debt at issue must be a consumer debt.
I have had more than one conversation that goes like this:
Them: “Yeah, so they went out of business and now these collectors are threatening them with garnishment and harassing them.“
Me: “Wait, so this is a business debt?”
Them: “Yeah, it’s their business credit card that they used to buy stuff for the business.”
Me. “It has to be a consumer debt to bring a FDCPA claim, so your client doesn’t have standing. The other side will realize that immediately, and your case will be over before it starts.”
Them: “What? Oh, whatever. I’m just going to file it and see what happens.”
Not only did the attorney ignore me, they dug the hole deeper by professing their intention to plow ahead with a frivolous claim.
To be fair, it is not always that cut and dry. There is nothing wrong with having a discussion about an undecided fact, rule, or law. But be respectful about how you discuss it. If you are wading into unknown territory, remember that the other side probably understands the situation better than you.
Originally published 2013-09-14. Republished 2020-01-15.
Randall Ryder is the Director of Appellate Advocacy & Lecturer in Law at the University of Minnesota Law School.