"So You Got My Letter": A Small Businessman's Guide To Dealing With Obnoxious Letters From Lawyers
Just before leaving the office last night I got a call from Greg, of Greg's Quality Plumbing. Greg does seem, on the phone anyway, to be a quality plumber: a nice guy running a six employee shop for new construction and homeowners. Unfortunately one of Greg's employees made a mistake, overtightening a compression nut on the toilet water supply line in a very expensive house insured by BigState Casualty Insurance Company. The nut eventually fractured,over Christmas vacation with the family out of town, and the water flowed for days. BigState paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to rehabilitate the waterlogged house, and wants its money back. From Greg's Quality Plumbing.
And so Greg got my letter, and Greg picked up the phone to sort this all out, and to set me straight. As I said, I have no doubt Greg is a quality plumber but Greg is an absolute amateur when it comes to dealing with sharks in the water. He made a number of serious mistakes, feeding me information about his business, the employee who did the work, the general contractor who built the house and will be cross-claiming against Greg in the coming lawsuit, and Greg's business assets. All while trying to set me straight.
In the end, Greg did not set me straight. What he accomplished was to give me information I will use against him at his deposition and at trial. He kneecapped the defense attorney his insurance company will retain, an attorney who won't even hear about the dispute between BigState and Greg's Quality Plumbing for several months. I almost feel sorry for Greg, who came into the conversation with high hopes that he would frighten me off or convince me that I have no case against him. All that he did was convince me to write this post, as friendly advice to small businessmen on what to do when they get "the letter".
- When you get a letter from a lawyer, read it. Read it immediately. Read it more than once. Then take a short break, and read it again. When Greg called me, he told me he "wanted to find out what all of this was about." If Greg had bothered to read my letter, which detailed exactly what we think the problem was, what we want from Greg, and how to give us what we want, he wouldn't have needed to call me. And he wouldn't have answered a bunch of my questions as I pretended to search my files and databases to get to the bottom of the problem in BigState v. Greg's Quality Plumbing.
- Don't be an ostrich. Don't ignore the problem: It won't go away. I've spent most of my career defending clients for insurance companies, so I've ceased being amazed at how people hide their heads in the sand when they get bad news. But they do. They even get a "letter", by certified mail, that says CIVIL SUMMONS with another "letter" titled COMPLAINT attached, and file it away, meaning to get around to responding to it. They violate rule #1, failing to read the Summons which clearly states that they have 30 days to respond, in writing filed with the clerk of court, or something bad will happen to them. After you've read the letter, you need to frame a response. And that response should not come from you.
- Don't be an internet hero. You read a lot of things on the internet: you read about the day-to-day life of lesbians in Syria. You read about cute women who are just dying to meet lonely men in New York. And you read stories about laypeople who've beaten lawyers at their own game, with nothing but their wits and the righteousness of their cause. Those sure are nice stories, but are they true? All I can judge from is my own experience: I've never "lost" a case, for the plaintiff or the defendant, in which I faced a layperson on the other side. ("Losing" is a relative term: every time I litigate against laypeople, I feel like a loser because it's like beating up a twelve year old.) I've beaten a neurosurgeon who could have afforded counsel but didn't feel the need because it was a small case, he was right, and doggone it he was smart. I've beaten a hyperlitigious crank who's filed so many pro se lawsuits she's been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. And I've beaten everyone in between. Because while I'm not all that smart, I'm old. And I've been doing this for a long time. You haven't. Which leads to:
- Shut up. Wise advice, that applies to civil matters as much as criminal cases. Don't call the lawyer who sent you "the letter" to "set him straight". You won't solve the problem on the phone. But you might hang yourself.
- Get help. Obviously the person or company on the other side thought the dispute between you was important enough to retain counsel. That's a hint. If you have a business, you probably know a lawyer. Even if you don't, your customers and friends do. Ask around, discreetly (i.e. not blabbing all over town that you're getting sued), for the name of a good lawyer or two. And call the lawyer. Today. If the lawyer doesn't call you back with reasonable promptness (meaning if you call me at 11pm on a Saturday, don't expect a return call before midnight), call another.
- Get professional help. Bob who pleads out speeding tickets for $250 a pop at the courthouse may be a good negotiator, but he's probably not the best choice to address your bank's demand for you to cover that Nigerian "certified check" that turned out to be fraudulent. The best source of legal referrals is other lawyers. By all means ask the lawyer whether the problem facing you is in one that's in his field. You'd be happy to have an ophthalmogist stop to help you as you lie bleeding on the side of the road, but once you get to the emergency room you'd want a trauma surgeon. If as Robert Heinlein said, specialization is for insects, that explains why lawyers give many people the creeps.
- Don't be penny-wise but pound-foolish. If you're getting a letter from an attorney because you owe sixty dollars at the video store, just pay the bill. If you're getting a million dollar demand because old Ms. Shuffler broke her neck when she slipped in the banana aisle of your store, get out your checkbook. You're going to need a quality defense. Which leads to:
- Are you in good hands? Any claim that could conceivably be covered by your business's insurance policy (you are insured, right?) should be reported to your insurance company. In writing. Immediately. If you don't report a problem to your insurance company because you don't want your rates to increase or you're afraid they'll cancel your policy (as clients have told me when I was asked to get their default judgments set aside), YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG! What do you think you're writing the premium check every month for? If a loss is even arguably covered, your insurer will take over negotiation of the claim, speak for you through an adjuster who's not terrified of lawyers, and hire a lawyer to defend you at its own expense. Don't be Greg of Greg's Quality Plumbing, who should have turned this over to his insurer (in fact that's what I told him to do) and then could have rested easy.
- Keep your files. It should go without saying, but when you get a notice from an attorney, or for that matter the government, the first thing you should do is not to throw away all records relating to whatever the problem is. Covering up may turn a humdrum civil case into a criminal case. Instead, turn the file over to your lawyer. Let him worry about what to do with it. And lastly,
- Don't get depressed. And don't panic. The sonofabitch who sent you that obnoxious letter may not love you, but plenty of other people do.
Lawyers should feel free to criticize or supplement this list in comments. Our lay readers are encouraged to tell us stories of how they fought City Hall and The Man on their own, and won.