Perhaps not as memorable of a scene from the 1996 hit movie “Jerry Maguire” as the “You had me at hello” scene that launched my former neighbor, Renee Zellweger, into Hollywood stardom, but still a good scene... as an attorney, the “Help me, help you” scene resonates with me. Other than an opportunity for some gratuitous name dropping, maybe it also serves to illustrate one of the common issues which invariably plague attorneys and clients from time to time.
We attorneys are strange creatures. We get invited to insert ourselves into your business, usually long after the “event” and after all communication has already broken down. I can honestly say almost every client I meet is a good person; however, I am meeting the client in the middle of a bad or trying circumstance. If a dispute has fallen apart to the point attorneys are needed, the problem is, once reduced to its simplest component parts, often a breakdown in communication, and everyone is frustrated and entrenched to one degree or another.
So where do I begin? Literally that is always my first question. You see, no matter an attorney’s skill or training as “attorney & counsellor at law,” we literally do not know where to begin without you, our client, giving us accurate information. We truly do need you to help us help you, or so the movie scene went. Ordinarily, your attorney was not there when the event happened, and, no, he or she probably was not out golfing either…whatever he or she was doing it was not with you. So, the attorney truly starts every new representation from relative blissful ignorance. An attorney needs to understand as much of the relevant information as you can provide in order for you to help the attorney to truly help you.
Your attorney talks in terms of “evidence,” which is at its core is a new form of communication you must now learn. Evidence is truly key to your attorney’s ability to do the best job to represent you. Evidence is information unique to the dispute. In order to save you money and your attorney his or her sanity, you should start by packaging information about the issue as neatly, accurately and succinctly as you can. Never lose sight of one of the most important considerations to you - time. “Time” is a critical factor to you because your attorney sells his or her expertise by the hour, which means the better your organization, accuracy and ability to get to the dispute at hand, the less the time, and the lower your bill will be for the attorney to get moving in a productive manner. “Productivity” usually flows with “time” and that preparation also means the attorney is more productive toward resolving the dispute as well, which in turn saves you time and money.
So, lets break down the way you, the client, can help your attorney help you.
- Before you ever think you need an attorney, the first thing you absolutely must do is become your own combination investigator, photographer, stenographer, librarian and personal secretary. As soon as you recognize a dispute arising, grab a pen and pad of paper, and start taking notes, asking questions and jotting down names.
- Start a “diary,” separate from your notes, about the dispute so that you can keep a chronological record as you go and write something in your “diary” at the end of every day. Jot down a note about who you talked with and what the conversation was about.
- If an injury is involved track its impact on your ordinary daily life, especially keep track of pain.
- Stick to the issues. Do not vent your frustrations about parties, witnesses, attorneys and, heaven forbid, the judge, in your diary because the opposing party will ask for this type of diary if the issue goes to Court.
- Ask for copies of reports and records as you go; it is often less expensive for you to ask for copies. Trust me the same agency or company that will give you copies at a low or no cost will charge an attorney, not realizing that will be a cost passed on to you. Make copies of documents, photograph, videos, emails, voice mails, and, no matter what it takes text messages. If you do not save it, your attorney cannot use it…and if the attorney has to try to get it, you will pay for those efforts potentially at the attorney’s billing rate. If you cannot get copies, keep notes of where the documents are located, who the contact is for the document, their address and phone numbers.
- Jot down the names and as much contact information as you can from any possible witnesses you meet. In some disputes you will know all the witnesses so the name alone allows you to picture the witness, however in accidents and unexpected events you may never have met this person before, so jot down a quick physical description beside the name in order to jog your memory later as to who that name belongs to in your memory of the event. Do not hesitate to give your name or ask for theirs. A nick name is worthless, a first name is better than none, a full name is far better and a name with an address or phone number is best.
- Jot down a quick description of a vehicle and a license plate before the car leaves. If someone says anything you recognize as important, write it down, now and be certain to write down who said it and who else may have heard it. Do not wait a few minutes, short term memories are not good. The diary keeps the chronology of events in order and catches things you might have forgotten to add your notes.
- In many cases you may need to think about preserving tangible evidence. If it is a literal “crime scene” you may need to try to prevent evidence from being moved or touched before law enforcement arrives. If it is a civil matter and the evidence can be physically collected and preserved, then you might have to do that, but not all evidence has to be physically gathered to be preserved. Photographs can show the condition at a specific moment, especially if the condition is likely to change (injuries that will heal, damage that will be repaired or removed from the scene such as a car being towed away). Photos of how it looked “right then” may give someone months from now “evidence” of what happened.
- Photos up close will show greater detail; shoot from multiple angles as shadows can either hide or enhance detail.
- Consider adding a common object like a coin or ruler for a sense of scale.
- Get an overview shot.
- While standing in one spot, turn taking several photos working left to right. Several photographs can be overlapped in sequence to create a panoramic view with more detail than if you walk back a great distance trying to capture a large scene on one photograph where the images are too small.
- Always remember to include land marks such as street signs or distinguishable buildings to establish the location.
- Videos are fine but keep in mind there are increasing restrictions on when and where you may legally record audio and audio comes attached to video. The general rule of thumb depends on whether an “expectation” of privacy” exists or does not. If the “expectation of privacy” exists then you cannot record a person without their knowledge and consent (inside a home, on a private telephone call, in a bathroom/dressing room or in a doctor’s/lawyer’s/therapist’s/pastor’s office are easy examples).
- Florida requires all parties in these areas to “consent” to being recorded.
- Once you are out in public there is no expectation of privacy so the same recording made standing on the front lawn of a house is legal whereas it would be illegal if made inside the house without “consent.”
- Consent should be on the recording but if the recording is being made in a clearly obvious manner “consent” might be implied if everyone notices but no one objects.
- Above all, please keep in mind what YOU say will be captured on your own video and may come back to haunt you - stay focused and factual. Do not be confrontational - shoving a cell phone in front of someone who would ordinarily talk from a comfortable distance may cause them to stop talking.
- Never put yourself in any type of harm’s way.
- Finally, do whatever it takes to save all of your notes and evidence.
- Buy a file box or tote.
- Phones are great until you drop it in the pool, then texts, photographs and videos are gone.
- Even if you have to go to your cellular provider for help, print it out or save it to a removable drive.
- Make certain you have backup copies of everything. Build one file for yourself and a second file for your attorney.
- Organize your attorney’s file in a logical fashion. Papers dumped in a box will require time by the attorney to sort – and time is money – organized, labeled folders in a box is a dream come true, and the same applies to digital files. Digital files should be labeled and sorted into logical folders. This will speed up the process when it comes time for you and your attorney to review evidence and decide what items are relevant.
“Help me, help you” have a better experience in your working relationship with your attorney starting with collecting and organizing the information you have gathered as logically, neatly, accurately and succinctly as you can.
This article is for general information only and is not intended as and does not constitute legal advice or solicitation of a prospective client. It should not be relied on for legal advice in any particular factual circumstance.