Why A Lawyer Can't Just Answer A Simple Question

I have been practicing law for over twenty-two years, and have fielded countless legal questions from clients and prospective clients. Our law office is well-established, with a good reputation, and people feel comfortable calling us with their legal concerns. Many believe that their questions can be answered quickly, for free, and over the phone. This belief is usually incorrect, for a number of reasons.

My actual clients understand that there are few quick answers. They know that I will take all the time needed to properly understand their situation, and to frame a thorough answer. But they only know this from having worked with me before. The people who don’t understand are the ones without a prior history of having worked with a thoughtful lawyer.

One would never expect a doctor to diagnose a rash over the phone, for free, and to prescribe medication for it, without ever having examined the patient. But people expect lawyers to do something similar, and perhaps much more complicated, all the time. In my experience, there is no such thing as a quick question.

If practicing law was easy, many more people would do it. They would not need our years of education and experience in order to give good legal advice. But the legal world doesn’t work that way, which prospective clients find out quickly once they become actual clients and get the benefit of our advice. There are too many potential scenarios, too many issues presented in a given factual situation, too many considerations of long-term strategy or “three-dimensional chess”, and too many aspects of the law which don’t make sense or are counter-intuitive to the layperson, for there to be any such thing as a quick question.  

Asking a quick question and expecting a quick answer is an invitation to trouble. If I spend 30 seconds on the phone with someone, do not understand all the relevant facts, and end up giving a quick answer, but a wrong answer, how well have I performed as a lawyer? How will that person feel about having listened to my advice, only to find out later that it was wrong or did not work for the individual’s particular situation? It is not a position in which I want to find myself, nor should the potential client. Besides, sometimes even experienced attorneys need to research the answer to a nuanced question – we are not walking encyclopedias with ready answers to every conceivable legal question.

My personal practice is concentrated in workers’ compensation. I offer free consultations for workers’ compensation cases. You would think I would want to get those consultations over with as quickly as possible, since I’m not getting paid for that time. But my initial consultations almost never end within an hour, and sometimes go closer to two hours. Why? Because I need to ask detailed questions on a wide range of topics in order to fully understand that prospective client’s case, so that I can give the best advice possible. Spending less time means cutting corners, and cutting corners means missing essential facts which might become a surprise during litigation three months down the road.

For work other than injury cases, our attorneys, like most experienced lawyers, charge a consultation fee. This is a standard practice which reflects both the value of our professional time and the education, experience, and skill which we bring to the conference table. Lawyers know that people looking for free advice are not likely to want to pay the actual legal fees that would be involved in taking on their cases. If someone doesn’t want to pay a consultation fee, why would they want to pay for legal services once the case is underway?

Established lawyers do not take every case for every person who calls on the phone.  Most lawyers want to work with clients who appreciate the advice they are receiving, and who are willing to pay a reasonable fee with the expectation that their legal matters will be handled expertly and efficiently. Good lawyers will not want to take people’s money for the sake of making a buck, when those cases do not make financial sense to pursue or when the likelihood of success is minimal. Only a thorough consultation will give the experienced lawyer enough facts to tell if a case is worth pursuing or not. You will want a lawyer who can tell the difference. Be willing to pay for that expert advice up front so that you don’t end up paying much more down the road.

Levi S. Wolf, Esquire is the managing attorney in the Pottstown law firm of Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C., practicing mainly in Montgomery, Berks, and Chester Counties. He was a member of the inaugural class of attorneys who were certified as specialists in the practice of workers’ compensation law by the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Section on Workers’ Compensation Law as authorized by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  He can be reached at 610.323.7436, or by e-mail to LWolf@wolfbaldwin.com.

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