How to Ask Another Attorney for Help

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One of the toughest aspects of being an attorney (especially a solo) is that you can find yourself living in your own little bubble. Whether you are calling another member of your firm, or another attorney that you know, reaching out for help is easier said than done.

Regardless who you ask, be respectful of the other attorney’s time and advice.

Step 1: Know What You Need To Ask

It is best to determine how much help you need before picking up the phone. To get started, here are some basic questions you should ask yourself.

  1. Do you need information on one or two issues related to the claim?
  2. How much time will you need to discuss your questions?
  3. Do you need to be taught a practice area?

The answers to those questions should guide how you ask for help, and what kind of help you are asking for.

You should also use the correct medium when requesting assistance. I would much rather have a ten minute call than a chain of emails throughout the day. If it is a detailed discussion, I would prefer lunch for an hour over numerous phone calls.

If you think you need more than a lunch meeting, then you should really consider asking someone to co-counsel or simply refer the case. There is nothing more awkward (and frustrating) than someone that buys you lunch, and then regularly wants to “bounce a few ideas off of you.” If they are someone you just met, you are burning down that bridge before you can even build it.

Step 2: Be Respectful of Their Time and Schedule

Do not call someone out of the blue at 3:30 in the afternoon, and tell them you need to talk them right away about a case.

At that time of day, most attorneys are either putting out their own fires on a case, or starting to plow through work pushed aside earlier in the day. This is especially true if you do not know the person.

To be fair, there are situations where you might need an immediate answer. If that is the case, try reaching out to attorneys you have built relationships with. I would happily take phone calls from my close colleagues at any time of the day.

If you need to cold call someone, make sure your introduction follows these three important rules: you are respectful of their time, you have an estimate of how much time you need, and you offer an opportunity to set a meeting at their convenience.

If you are asking the right person for help, they are probably busy, so make it as easy as possible for them to say yes. If you send an email or leave a voicemail and do not get an immediate response, wait a day. Remember that your emergency is not another attorney’s emergency.

Step 3: Respect Their Advice

If you are asking for advice, it is likely you are unsure of your client, the case, and procedural status. You may not be clueless, but you lack confidence in your position.

Keep that in mind when you ask for advice. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing over an interpretation of the law, facts, rules, and just straight up ignoring rock solid advice or common sense.

For example, I regularly get calls from attorneys that want to pursue a claim under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The FDCPA protects consumers against abusive and unfair debt collection. It also requires that the debt at issue must be a consumer debt.

I have had more than one conversation that goes like this:

Them: “Yeah, so they went out of business and now these collectors are threatening them with garnishment and harassing them.“

Me: “Wait, so this is a business debt?”

Them: “Yeah, it’s their business credit card that they used to buy stuff for the business.”

Me. “It has to be a consumer debt to bring a FDCPA claim, so your client doesn’t have standing. The other side will realize that immediately, and your case will be over before it starts.”

Them: “What? Oh, whatever. I’m just going to file it and see what happens.”

Not only did the attorney ignore me, they dug the hole deeper by professing their intention to plow ahead with a frivolous claim.

To be fair, it is not always that cut and dry. There is nothing wrong with having a discussion about an undecided fact, rule, or law. But be respectful about how you discuss it. If you are wading into unknown territory, remember that the other side probably understands the situation better than you.

Updates

September 17, 2013. Originally published.

September 3, 2014 Entirely rewritten.

Featured image: “Young busy businessman at his desk” from Shutterstock.

  • Daniel Coughlin

    Thanks for this! As a 2nd year solo attorney, it’s always stressful to contact another attorney to ask for advice. I usually try to be as prepared as possible with more of a “I think this is what I need to do / what the law says. Am I on the right track?”

    All of my experience–maybe 4 times–has been positive. I don’t think I have spent more than 15 minutes on any call. That usually saves me about 4 hours of double checking, google searches, and re-checking.

    What do you think about token thank you gifts? I had one attorney go into particular detail, so I sent him a gift card (something like $20) for a local (to him) coffee shop that I enjoy. I figured he owed me nothing, saved me a bunch of time, and he might get the card and look back on the conversation as positively as I do.

    • Randall Ryder

      I think a thank you note in some form is a very good idea – and a token thank you gift is even better.

      That said, most attorneys were in the same boat when they started out. The good ones will usually offer to buy you lunch or coffee.

    • http://estatemap.com/ Joe Henderson

      You can get a LOT of mileage from a $10 Caribou card. The amount of the card means far less than you making it obvious you appreciate their time. A comment mentioning the token value of the card but the great appreciation almost always earns you the right to another call in the future.

  • http://estatemap.com/ Joe Henderson

    Excellent advice. You hit a few of my pet peeve nails right on the head.

  • David K. Hiscock

    Great.

    Here’s what I’ve found works well when I’m calling and asking for a hint – I tell ’em what I’ve done so far and two or three of the ‘next-steps’ I’ve considered, and that I’m not sure if there’s something I _can’t_ see – this lets the person I’m calling know that I’ve thought the matter through and I’m not just asking them to do my work.

    If I show them, yes, I _have_ read the statute; it’s section 2(b) that has me uncertain if it means x or y should be done next (or if the statute is read strictly or loosely by local commissioners) then they see I’m reaching out for their actual experience and expertise, not just hoping for the “answer” w/o me doing some of the work.
    That’s my .02.

  • https://baumgartnerlawyers.com Greg Baumgartner

    There are many attorneys who will go out of their way to assist a young lawyer and some will go further and mentor a new attorney. There are also many groups and list serves that are very helpful for learning the practice of law.

    I would encourage young attorneys to join their local Bar Association and get on the list serves. Many trial lawyers associations also provide invaluable information for their members.

    I would also suggest that young attorneys avoid the situation of calling to get an answer when they could easily obtain the same by a simple research. It is unfair to the attorney in the good way for your phone call not to be returned next time.

    I do believe that quid pro quo can come into this and that a thank you and “what can I do for you” will be well received and appreciated.