A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for navigating and interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know. And a lot of people don’t know how to talk to lawyers; let’s see if we can fix that — you may approach the bench!
If there is one truth to living in a modern, civilized, law-abiding nation, it is this: at some point, you will have to deal with lawyers. And, in most cases, you will deal with them while navigating the legal system. This means that they will either be on your side or they will be your lawyer’s opponents, and that’s how we’ll treat them for the purposes of this article.
When The Lawyer is on Your Side
When you have a lawyer, in most cases there are three hard-and-fast, ironclad rules you should obey at all times when you are dealing with them:
- Do not lie.
- Do not leave out details.
- Do not miss deadlines.
Remember that you have retained the lawyer for a reason: they are your advocate. They cannot be your advocate effectively if they don’t have all the details of your case. They especially can’t do their job effectively if you leave out a key detail or two. And they really, really can’t do their job if you miss a key date like a court filing. The legal system is like a city bus — if you miss the bus, that’s on you.
Next, here are some best practices; these might not come up every time you deal with a lawyer, but they’re important to remember anyway:
- Tell your story chronologically: Write it down first if you need to, but tell your story in the order events happened. Do not jump back and forth in your narrative. You want to avoid confusing your lawyer; a confused lawyer is no good to anyone, least of all you!
- Speak in complete sentences, conveying concise thoughts: Again, write things down if you need to, but finish your thoughts and communicate them in the fewest words possible while still conveying their full meaning. You want to avoid confusing your lawyer, and also remember that most of them bill by the hour — don’t spend your money thinking out loud!
- Stay on target: Keep your conversation to the matter at hand. No one cares about your cat, your dog, your nephew’s antics, or this other bank heist you did with Billy the Shank last Tuesday. If you’re talking to a lawyer about that thing with the goat, the marshmallows, and the rubber cement related to your public indecency charge, none of that other stuff matters.
- Do not use legal terminology: You’re talking to a lawyer because they know how to use legal terms and you don’t. Err on the side of plain language. Nothing frustrates and confuses your lawyer more than you throwing around erroneous terms.
- Follow up: Your lawyer is human and as such may forget things… like your case, for example. Calling them once a week is a good way to remind them you exist, and to catch up on any actions you need to take.
When You are Talking to an Opposing Lawyer
Being on the other side of the table is a whole different ballgame. For one thing, if you have a lawyer, and the other side’s lawyer is talking to you, you’re doing it wrong. There is one ironclad rule for speaking to opposing counsel if you already have a lawyer:
The only exception to that rule is inside a courtroom, if you are being cross-examined. Here, the best practices are a little different:
- Tell the truth: Lying under oath is a separate offense, and if you’re already on the stand there’s a good chance the opposing lawyer knows enough about you to catch most lies. And once you lose credibility, you don’t get it back.
- Only answer the question that was asked: Provide concise answers that completely answer the question, but never volunteer information.
- Only answer questions for which you know the answers: Don’t make up answers. Don’t embellish. If you don’t know the answer, say “I don’t know,” and if you can’t remember, say “I can’t remember.” And if you haven’t read a document, for God’s sake don’t testify about its details.
- Don’t get mad: It’s the opposing counsel’s job to make you look like a liar, a buffoon, or a guilty party, and that’s if they’re feeling charitable and they don’t want to bill you as the Antichrist. Don’t get mad at them for doing their job. Let your lawyer do that for you. Just keep your cool and answer the questions.
- Don’t joke around: Court isn’t the place for humor, and leave the sarcasm at home. Court transcripts are like text messages — sarcasm gets lost in translation and jokes don’t work.
- Don’t curse: You’re trying to appear as a creditable, believable human being. Cursing doesn’t help with that. The only time you should curse in court is if a judge asks you to repeat something verbatim that was relevant to the case and contained curse words.
- Give your lawyer time for objections: Wait a beat or two before replying to any questions. This will give your lawyer time to raise objections to things the other side really shouldn’t be asking.
But What if You Don’t Need a Lawyer?
I’ve only heard the following a few times in my life, and it ended badly in each case: “I don’t need a lawyer! I’m an educated adult! I know what I’m doing; I’ll just tell the judge how it happened.”
Listen very carefully, because this is important: if you have any dealings with the legal system, you need a lawyer. If you’re not a lawyer yourself, you are a child in the woods when it comes to the US legal system. The traditional ending for children in the woods is that they get eaten by wolves. At best, your lawyer is the kindly lumberjack who comes along to cut you out of the wolf’s belly.
You don’t understand the legal system if you have had a college education. You don’t understand the legal system if you grew up watching “Law & Order.” You don’t understand the legal system if your (insert friend/family member) is a lawyer. Unless you are a lawyer, preferably in the specific field in question, you don’t understand the legal system, and that can have repercussions.
Make no mistake, dealing with the US legal system is a game. And it’s not a kid’s game either, it’s one that costs money to play and comes with stiff penalties if you lose. You don’t want to lose, and you’re not equipped to play. So get a lawyer. Especially if you can’t afford it, get a lawyer; the American legal system is not kind to the poor. If you go to court, seriously, for real, get a lawyer. You might not win, but you won’t lose as badly, either.