Initial meeting with wrongful death survivors
Your loved one is killed. You cannot function. You cannot stop crying. You cannot stop thinking about your beloved. Your world seems like it is ending.
On top of this, there is an awareness that someone may have caused this death. Your loved one was killed not because of war or because of an Act of God. Death came too soon because someone did something either negligently or on purpose. And it is not right.
You are not a greedy person. You do not want to "make money" off your beloved's death. But you want whomever is responsible, to be held accountable. You want the world to say: your loved one's death was not in vain. Your loved one was not invisible. Your loved on was worthy of being treated with dignity, respect according to the law. And so you come to see a lawyer.
Here are some tips for conducting the first meeting with a potential new client in a wrongful death case:
- Do not start off the meeting by saying: "I'm sorry for your loss" and then immediately start talking about the incident.
- Do not take copious notes during the meeting
- Notice who comes to the meeting - is there a family support structure in place
- If family or trusted friends come, learn their roles and connect equally with them
- Connect to the survivor by being a human being.
- Figure out what is going on emotionally to your best ability
- Do not judge the survivor based upon how they present this first meeting. Most are still heavily grieving and highly anxious.
- Use discretion on whether to ask routine intake questions. There's no rule that says the first meeting needs to be the only meeting with a new client.
- Do not create anxiety. For example, I often tell the survivor not to worry about signing a retainer agreement that same day. To take it home, read it and then call with any questions or feel to come back to the office.
- Do not start talking about the facts of the incident or anything unless the survivor wants to talk about it or hear you talk about it.
- Discuss the eventual need for a probate and personal representative - not in great detail, but so the survivor can decide if they would like a dual role in the event of litigation
- Ask to see a photo of the deceased so you can get to know them
- Do not let family members see autopsy photos ever - even if they think they want to. If they've seen them before contacting you, encourage them to get counseling
- Do not try to act as a mental health counselor. Don't tell them what they should or shouldn't be doing in the grieving process.
- Ask them to provide all bills so you can deal with any debt collectors or insurance issues
- If criminal proceedings are ongoing, get the name of the prosecutor and any victim's advocate to follow up with later.
- Do not make them fill out a detailed intake form on the spot. Let them take it home if they wish.
- Do not start talking about complex legal issues - particularly those related to convoluted wrongful death statutes (Washington State has nasty archaic wrongful death laws).
- Do not place a monetary values on the loss of life. There's a time and place for everything. This is never the right time.
- Take your cues from the survivor. Some will want to stay for a long time and talk in great detail. That's okay. Oblige them. But don't expect them to remember what you say. Be prepared to later go through everything again. Others won't be able to stay longer than half an hour. That's okay too.