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Most lawyers would rather do anything — including risk malpractice or shortchange a client — than ask for help. Arrogance and time pressures explain some of this reluctance, but it’s a deeper problem, rooted in legal training. With its Socratic pedagogy and three-hour exams, law school conditions law students to equate the inability to answer questions with failure — often with disastrous consequences, as Steven Lubet points out in “Artificial Intelligence.” Law firms, too, discourage new associates from asking questions, preferring instead to have them spend long hours (presumably on the client’s dime) figuring out problems instead of asking for help. As a result, those (few) lawyers who do overcome the bias against asking questions know where to go for help. There’s no single Web site or public kiosk emblazoned with a large “Ask for help here” sign, CLE courses aren’t always available when we need answers, and many lawyers feel awkward approaching colleagues, afraid to ask for “free advice.” Not to worry — here’s how to ask questions and where to find the answers. THE BASICS The first step is to figure out who’s likely to have the answers you need. Some sources may be excellent for one purpose but not another. For example, I’m currently a member of solosez, an ABA listserv for solo and small-firm practitioners. I can count on the collective for assistance with questions about general matters such as dealing with difficult clients or federal litigation practice, but there’s really no one there to turn to for help with my more specialized energy regulatory practice. For these questions, I either call the federal agency that handles most of my energy matters or colleagues in the field. Next, determine the best way to communicate your questions. A phone call is appropriate for a quick question about how to file a motion, for example, whereas an open-ended question about how to start an employment law practice might require a meeting. E-mail works, too, but only with colleagues with whom you have an ongoing relationship or, at minimum, know through a listserve. An unsolicited e-mail to an attorney you’ve never met seeking an explanation of a complex tax question is likely to go unanswered. WHEN TO ASK Decide when you need a response — and don’t wait until the last minute to ask. If your appeal is due in 30 days and you need guidance on how to file it, call the clerk’s office well in advance of the deadline. And if a colleague agrees to review your draft interrogatories, send them early enough so your colleague can provide feedback without any time pressure. Unfortunately, most lawyers avoid asking questions at the very time that asking would be most helpful. For instance, when lawyers think they’ve made a mistake, they’re more likely to suffer in silence than talk it over with a colleague. In my early days of practice, I did the same, but not anymore. Recently, I received a frantic Friday night call from a client about an unanticipated problem that made me second-guess the strategy that I’d recommended. So I started the weekend with a knot in my stomach, trying to figure out whether there was some way to change course, wondering whether this was the mistake that would end my career. But rather than torture myself, I called a trusted colleague who is an expert on that particular issue, and after a 10-minute conversation, he reassured me that my original advice made sense and that staying the course was the right way to go. So I threw a memo together charting the future course of action, faxed it to the client, and on Monday morning, I looked like a hero. Had I been too embarrassed to seek help, I’d have spent a sleepless weekend stewing and still wouldn’t have figured out what to do. SPECIFIC RESOURCES Here’s where you can find answers to many of your questions. 1. Court Clerks. Most courts have extensive procedural rules, but they’re not always easy to navigate. Clerks are generally familiar with the court rules and can typically offer a quick answer. I’ve noticed that lawyers have different approaches to obtaining information from clerks. Criticizing the court’s system or expressing annoyance at the long wait to receive help usually doesn’t produce the best results. I’ve always found that a friendly, deferential attitude combined with an earnest explanation of my desire to adhere to the court’s rules works best. Being apologetic or playing dumb works, too — I’ve shamelessly done both. What’s important isn’t your ego, but getting the right answer. It’s also important to remember that you have to independently corroborate the information clerks provide you, so keep a copy of the rules handy when you seek help, and ask the clerk to cite the specific rule that supports their answer. 2. Government Personnel. Government personnel are also a valuable resource. Don’t assume that you need to speak with an attorney to get answers, either — depending on the question, nonlegal staff can provide valuable information. Many agencies also have hotlines that lawyers can call. As is the case with court clerks, the quality of agency staff varies, so when you find a helpful person, record their contact information for future use. 3. Law Practice Management Offices. Many bar organizations have law practice management offices that are staffed by former practicing attorneys. The LPM advisors can field questions about many of the nuts and bolts of starting a firm, such as where to find office space, the required registrations and how to purchase malpractice insurance. Some LPM offices even maintain a list of mentor attorneys whom you can call — and possibly meet with — to obtain further advice about starting a firm. Don’t be shy about taking maximum advantage of the bar’s LPM resources — after all, your bar dues pay for them. 4. Ethics Hotlines. Has a client ever threatened you with a grievance after you’ve demanded payment of their overdue bill for the umpteenth time? Or maybe opposing counsel has accused you of ethical misconduct to intimidate you from vigorously pursuing your client’s case? If so, there’s no need to suffer these gut-wrenching worries alone. If your bar has an ethics hotline, give it a call. You can do so in confidence, and although your inquiry probably won’t immunize you from future bar action, at least you’ll receive some guidance and peace of mind. Unfortunately, not all bars have attorneys readily available to respond to ethics questions. Bouncing ethics questions off colleagues or sending them out on a listserve are other good options. 5. Colleagues. Your own colleagues — law school pals, former co-workers, those with whom you share office space — are the greatest resources available. Every lawyer ought to develop a short list of colleagues with different specializations whom they can for help. Networking events are a great way to line up such a “go to” list. When you meet an attorney who practices in an area that you think might be relevant to your practice, ask them a little about their practice and if it would be OK to call them with questions, should the need arise. While most lawyers will agree to help you, there are those attorneys who won’t return your calls or who will make snide remarks implying that you should pay them for their advice. When I get feedback like that, I remove the attorney from my list. There are plenty of attorneys willing to help others, if only as a matter of professional courtesy — and they’re the ones who will get my business. 6. The Internet. The Internet is becoming an indispensable place to find answers. Bar association listserves, such as solosez, are a good way to get a dozen responses of varying viewpoints to an inquiry, often within an hour of posting it. Bloggers (as opposed to their blogs) are another useful and as yet overlooked resource. Law blogging still hasn’t been commercialized, so most of today’s bloggers remain willing to share their expertise. They’re always seeking new material for their blogs, and answering reader questions serves that goal. Dennis Kennedy, a prominent tech blogger, is particularly generous with his “all request days,” during which he responds to reader inquiries on everything from advice on a particular type of software to the future of BigLaw practice. CONCLUSION The moral here? When in doubt, ask for help. At the very least, one last question won’t hurt, and most of the time, you’ll be surprised — and maybe even relieved — to find how much it actually helps. And don’t forget to thank those who answer your questions — or they may not be so eager to help you in the future. Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C., and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. In 2002, Elefant created My Shingle.com, a Web log for solo and small-firm practitioners and lawyers who dream of starting a practice. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by e-mail at [email protected] Read Elefant’s bio.

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