Even before the retainer, an attorney-expert relationship will most likely begin with a phone call. For starters, an attorney isn’t going to hire an expert they’ve never spoken to before. But more importantly, they need to ensure an expert is knowledgeable, reliable, and on the same page for how to attack the case. These brief introductory calls—usually 15-20 minutes—are akin to a job interview. The attorney assesses the expert’s fit for the case and determines if this is someone they could work well with for several weeks or even months. This working relationship feel is especially important for cases that may have extended timelines.
To nail your next introductory call with an attorney, you’ll need a game plan. Here, we’ve outlined exactly how to prepare for that initial call, plus the top tips for best presenting your qualifications.
Lead with Professionalism
Bring your best professional persona to every introductory call. You’ll want to remain aware of your tone and language, especially when discussing your area of expertise. Avoid any unintended “talking down” to the lawyer as you describe your specialty. You want to convey your respect for the attorney and the consulting opportunity, but also explain how your knowledge qualifies you. Remain polite and listen to what the attorney can share about the case. And in case you’re tempted, skip the lawyer jokes.
Also, keep professionalism in mind for video conferences. This means dressing professionally and appearing neatly. The attorney will be looking to see how a jury would perceive you during courtroom testimony. First impressions are everything.
Show Up on Time
Lawyers are incredibly busy people. Their practice revolves around juggling anxious clients, developing case strategies, and never missing a single court deadline. Depending on the type of case, lawyers bill on a contingency basis, by the hour, or as a flat “alternative” fee. For this reason, they are highly conscious of time.
This means it is critical that you are on time for the introductory call. Especially in pandemic times, many calls will happen via video conference. It would be wise to log in early and troubleshoot any tech issues early. It’s also a good practice to stay muted with your camera off until the attorney joins. From there, it’s just two quick clicks to activate the video and sound to begin the call. This ensures that you’re not caught off guard when the attorney joins and doesn’t accidentally overhear something they shouldn’t.
Share Your Initial Take
Experts often go into an introductory call with the intention of not giving away any advice for free. As an accomplished, knowledgeable expert with valuable insights, they expect to be paid for their opinion. This approach to the first call, however, can actually cost you opportunities.
The whole purpose of the introductory call is to help the attorney assess if your expertise is a fit for the case. An attorney’s intention in asking you questions about the issues in their case is not to eke out a freebie. They are simply trying to understand your experience in analyzing similar issues in the past and perhaps get your initial take on the key issues in their case. Discussing at least some of your initial feedback based on the facts and your professional opinions avoids any miscommunication regarding your expert stance on the matter down the line. And, of course, builds rapport with the hiring attorney.
But remember this is an introduction and as a professional, you’ll need to look at all the documents and facts before giving an expert opinion. An attorney respects good analytical skills and integrity—that’s what they look for in the experts they hire. On the introductory call, a lawyer may only want your high-level thoughts on the technical areas where they are unfamiliar. You might explain your first impressions about the issues and problems in their case. It’s fine to give these initial thoughts but also reinforce that you would need to review the records before giving a full opinion. A point-blank refusal to answer any case questions will not win you the job.
Set Billing Expectations
Speaking of fees, do discuss fees and billing on the call. Just like in job interviews, it’s good to save the money talk until the end of the call. You don’t want to come across as simply after the paycheck. First learn about the case, what the lawyer needs help on, and then bring up billing expectations.
If you’re working with an expert placement service, they may have already shared your hourly rate with the attorney. Go ahead and clarify what your rates are and talk through billing expectations. Some experts assume that once the attorney knows their hourly rate, it’s okay to send them a sizable bill after one week. However, the attorney may have thought you were billing monthly and a sudden demand for a large sum of money may not go down well.
Instead, establish expectations about invoicing and payment terms. Discuss the volume of records to be reviewed, or any site inspections needed, for instance, and how you would bill for these aspects of the engagement. Consider working under a replenishable retainer. With retainer fees, a lawyer puts an agreed-upon amount of money in an account, and you draw down on it over a period as you complete deliverables. It can always be replenished as the case proceeds and the funds are used up. Retainers are a great approach to establishing billing practices early and getting all parties on board.