Sometimes people call and say that five or six (or ten!) years ago they got a ticket in Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill. They say they hired a lawyer to take care of it. Now they are unable to renew their license because of the ticket they thought the lawyer they had hired all those years ago had resolved it. They then hire me to reopen the case and take care of it. How might we might prevent these problems?
Help Head Off a Problem
Even though lawyers are expected to represent their clients competently and reliably, Rule 1 is that it is still your case. Please don’t hire a lawyer and then forget about it. Follow up. Let’s take the example of a traffic case like the one above. After your court date give your lawyer a day or two to contact you with the results, but if you don’t hear from them within three or four days, call or email your lawyer. If it turns your your lawyer missed the court date, it’s easy to fix the problem so early in the process.
Most lawyers are glad for such follow-up. It helps prevent a minor mistake like a missed court date from snowballing into something much more serious, like a license revocation (a consequence that will leave the lawyer scrambling to clean up).
This advice is similar to what many medical groups advise to avoid medical errors. I once read an article by Debra Wood, RN of Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center that urged patients to not just let things be done to them, but to take an active role to make sure they are getting the right medicines and procedures. “How can you avoid a medical mistake? ‘Patients are the center of the health care team,’ says Cathy Barry-Ipema, spokesperson for the Joint Commission . . . . You need to be an active participant. You need to be informed, and if something does not seem right, ask . . . .”
That same principle applies to your legal case.
Now suppose you have not followed up and your lawyer has missed your court date. Sticking with our traffic example, several weeks after your missed court date, you get a letter from DMV saying that you missed your court date and that if you don’t take care of the case by such-and-such a date, your license will be revoked. You think, “Hey, I hired a lawyer to resolve that for me!” What should you do? Call (or email) your lawyer now!! Here’s a suggested script: “Good morning, Ms. Florrick,* I got a letter from DMV today saying that my license is scheduled for revocation because I didn’t go to court last month. If I’m not mistaken, that’s the case I hired you for. Would you check on that for me? Thanks, and I look forward to hearing from you.”
When attorney Florrick hears that message, she’s going to go into high gear to straighten this out before the suspension date listed in your DMV letter. And because you called her as soon as you discovered her mistake, it may be possible to correct this without incurring late fees or other penalties.
Even if you find it hard to deliver such a civil phone message as the one I described above (i.e., your phone message is more like, “Ms. Florrick!! I hired you to take care of that case for me, and DMV now says you didn’t. What kind of sloppy operation are you running?“) it’s still better to call your lawyer than to just ignore the problem. Why? Remember Rule 1.
And believe it or not, Lawyer Florrick would rather hear from you, whether or not your message is polite, than for her mistake to snowball and cause a missed court date to become a suspended driver’s license.
*The names used in this post are totally random and have no connection to any person, real or fictional!!