Talking to lawyers on the phone….

Let’s talk about how you get legal advice over the telephone.  That is the most common medium for legal advice. We use texting and emailing a lot these days, but when you have a situation that involves some complexity it’s best to get on the phone. School law situations almost always involve some complexity.  So for the rest of this week, a few tips on talking to lawyers on the phone.

Getting good legal advice is a two-person team.  You play a critical role. So let’s start by outlining some of the responsibilities of the client. 

  1.  Provide all of the facts.  This is the main job for the client.  The lawyer’s advice will be based on the lawyer’s understanding of the facts.  Your job is to convey those facts completely and evenhandedly.  Maybe you are not the one who knows the facts. If so, get someone else on the call with you. If the lawyer asks a question and you don’t know the answer, you may need to call back.  It’s very important that the facts—all of the relevant facts—be conveyed accurately.
  2. Provide the context for those facts.  Are there disagreements among administrators in the district about how to proceed?  Is there conflict among the board members about this issue, or between the board and the superintendent?  Legal advice is not a dry, mechanical process.  The lawyer will serve you better if the lawyer can grasp the big picture, so help out with that.
  3. Don’t pretend to know something you don’t know. Don’t bluff your way through.  It’s human nature to want to make a good impression on the person you speak with, but put this aside in the service of rigorous honesty.
  4. If you don’t understand what the lawyer is saying, say so.  Lawyer-talk can obfuscate rather than clarify.  If this happens a lot, get another lawyer. 
  5. If it’s a conference call, it’s a good idea to compare notes afterward. Did everyone understand the advice in the same way?  Often you will find that different people heard different things.  You may need to call back for clarification.  If this happens a lot, get another lawyer.
  6. Don’t be timid about asking the lawyer for the “authority” that forms the foundation of the lawyer’s advice.  The “authority” will usually be a statute, regulation, statement of policy, or court case.  This often comes up with clients who know the answer to the question before they call, but need to convince someone else in the district.  For example, the superintendent knows the answer, but is having a hard time convincing the board president of what the law requires.  Ask the lawyer for the authority.
  7. Don’t shop around for the answer you want.  That only provides temporary comfort, but not sustainable serenity. 
  8. Remember who the lawyer represents.  We call the lawyer the “school lawyer” because the lawyer represents the school district as a legal entity.  The lawyer may be your friend, but the lawyer is not your lawyer.
  9. Maybe you have a lawyer you regularly rely on who is not available to take your call. So you talk to someone else in the law firm, someone you don’t know as well.  Then you want to check it out with Old Familiar. That’s OK. Go ahead and make that call, but please tell Old Familiar that you’ve already talked to someone else in the firm.
  10. Don’t be rushed.  Rushed legal advice is usually bad legal advice, so don’t rush the phone call. Take your time.  Don’t worry about how much the phone call is costing your district.  Our law firm, along with many others, offers “no charge” calls for regular clients, so it may be that the phone call is already covered by your district’s retainer agreement with the law firm. But even if there is some cost involved, this is not the time to worry about that.  Preventive legal advice is far more cost effective than the alternative, so just let go of any concerns you have about the lawyer’s meter.

That’s a good start. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the lawyer’s job.


Tomorrow: the lawyer’s job on the phone….