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“You’re easier to talk with in person than over the phone”

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Solo practice cheerleading guru Jay Foonberg implores lawyers not to quote fees over the phone, at least in my 1996 version of his book from before the days that a huge number of lawyers got their own websites and before Skype came on the scene. Foonberg figured that people are less likely to hire a lawyer who quotes a fee over the phone than in person. However, the reality is that plenty of criminal defendants are from hundreds of miles from my office, and many of them are going to choose their lawyer through a phone consultation.

Consequently, for consultations that ordinarily are free with me in person, I usually bill for those initial meetings where the person is within an hour of my office, and usually do not bill extra when they are a further distance from my office. That approach tends to work well.

It is always preferable to meet with my clients before they hire me, and certainly well before the trial date. However, for misdemeanor cases where my clients face little to no likely active — versus suspended — jail time if convicted, the motivation to meet their potential lawyer diminishes the farther they are from the lawyer’s office, at least once the roundtrip drive is over a few hours.

Nothing beats in-person meetings with clients and potential clients. The meeting assures that we are paying full time and attention to each other in a confidential setting. Warmth, reassurance, empathy, and difficult topics all are best expressed in person.

In this day and age of constant interruptions from text messaging, social networking, phone calls, and the list goes on, an old-fashioned in-person meeting is the best thing to do the trick to eliminate the distractions. With clients who are freaking out over their cases, nothing beats our taking a walk under the trees and sharing some sophomoric jokes to ease the tension they feel over their cases, interspersing talking about the essentials of their cases. Of course, clients held without bond are captive audiences, when they will be more at ease meeting outside the jail cage.

Some clients like the reassurance of a hug, which I cannot give over the phone, and which I have discussed before.

One of my recent clients who lives far, far away from me and our courthouse did not meet with me until the court date. It was too expensive in terms of time and travel for him to have flown to see me earlier. We had a great time together on his court date, not least of which was celebrating a great result with no conviction. Once we reached a resolution of his case, we joked around while waiting for the judge to re-take the bench, and bantered more outside the courthouse once our case was resolved, in a beautiful country setting. He is a fascinating man with a gripping ongoing life story. Most of my clients have interesting stories, and I try discovering them long before court to help me and my clients relate well with each other; and to help humanize my clients in negotiating with prosecutors, in preparing their trials, and in presenting them at any sentencings. A fringe benefit of learning my clients’ stories is the personal benefit I get in knowing them.

That is not to say that the people I help all have life stories that are jackfruit and pineapples, and wildflowers and lotus flowers. A huge percentage of people have very painful experiences, many ongoing — not helped by their present criminal court predicaments. Criminal defenses lawyers and psychologists are in the wrong professions if they are not ready to deal with those experiences, and to fully uncover them as needed to help their clients.

In any event, my client who flew from far away to come to court — as several do — mentioned before we parted: "You’re easier to talk with in person than over the phone." Sage words for me always to remember, particularly in this day and age of cellphone connections that are not always clear enough, and with clients sometimes feeling disappointed that I am unable to speak on the spot when they call, rather than calling back or setting a specific time to talk. Thanks to this and all clients who remind me to talk with them as people, and not with a perpetual lawyer’s hat.