After a week, the phone rang. The call was ID’d as Dinkes & Schwitzer. In a couple of seconds, I decided that my anger had transmuted into my usual affable sarcasm, so I could risk picking up the phone.
It was not the nervous paralegal. It was Bill Hamel, one of the partners. The guy, in fact, whom I had first met four years ago, and with whom I’d signed the retainer agreement.
He called me “Miss Fein.” I called him “Bill.” He should have begun with an apology. An explanation to answer the specific complaints in my letter. He should have.
He didn’t. He sounded cold and a little bit aggrieved, a little bit hostile. Sideline advice to lawyers: No, no, no. You don’t want to treat a justifiably irritated client like that. Because an irritated client, especially one well versed in psychological warfare, let alone legal procedure, will interpret your coldness not as you wish — “oh dear oh dear, I must have misbehaved and now I’m being yelled at!” — but correctly, as a telltale defensive maneuver.
So right away I understood that he had not called to respond to my concerns, but to intimidate, to quell me. To quote Jack Reacher, not good.
He asked, “Wasn’t it explained to you that Medicare had a lien on the settlement and we’d have to pay them back?” Well, gee, yes. Indeed, I said, I knew that long before it was “explained” to me. In fact, I pointed out, several years ago I had sent them the specific Medicare claim documents covering the expenses which would be repaid to Medicare. Hadn’t anybody there bothered to look through my file?
Hamel said some things dedicated to the purpose of convincing me his law firm was right on top of this whole thing. (See above, why I doubted that.) He told me that the shaky paralegal who had called me three times was even now finalizing my case.
I said, “She’s a paralegal.” He said yes and that she was working on my settlement and would call me. I said, I don’t want to be called by one of your paralegals. At this point I want a lawyer calling me.
At some point, he said, “I didn’t call to pick a fight with you.” Bad choice of statements: it wasn’t his role as my lawyer to “not pick a fight with” me. I had picked the fight. It was his role to respond. It didn’t go over well with me that he was jumping all over the place to claim first dibs on anger. (Don’t you just grit your teeth when people do that?)
When I reiterated my irritation that I hadn’t been asked to the deposition of the defendant — an absolute right any party in a lawsuit has — he attempted to explain this away: “Well, we had your own deposition testimony to review before we deposed the defendant.” So they didn’t need my participation? Me? The plaintiff? The person who knows the full story?
Boy, do I doubt that — but in any case, they were obligated to tell me about the deposition of the defendant, and to invite me to be there. They hadn’t.
I reminded Bill that in my letter I had demanded a copy of my entire file, the file his law firm should have been sending me all along. Was it ready yet? I pointed out that it was an ethical obligation of his firm to send his client copies of all documents. “I mean,” I said, “Bill, you never even sent me a copy of my own complaint! You can’t run a law firm like that!”
And then he made a bad mistake. Still cool, he said, “We’re not trying to hide anything from you.”
I didn’t grasp the implication until later. I replied, “I didn’t think you were trying to hide anything but indeed I shouldn’t have had to go onto the data base of the Supreme Court to read my own complaint.”
We concluded the call: I said I wanted my file, he said he would have it copied and did I want to pick it up? I said, yes, he said he’d have someone call when the file was ready.
Then, as I sat on my couch, it hit me: never would I have believed my own lawyer was trying to hide something from me. Not even though I had reason to suspect Dinkes & Schwitzer had been careless about my case and had neglected certain things.
But, given that Bill had suggested it, I now had every reason to believe they were trying to hide something from me.
And I also realized that they were worried: was I considering filing an ethics complaint with the court administration?
Next: What can you do when your lawyer ignores you? Part 5