One of the most important things I do in every driver’s license restoration and clearance case is to thoroughly “prep” my clients for their hearings. The whole preparation process is really a 2-way street, because prior to speaking with my client, I have to carefully read and review the entire file myself, to the point of actually memorizing it. For the client, this is about a lot more than just going over the questions likely to be asked of the client at the live hearing. And to be clear, I NEVER settle for a video hearing, and always schedule my cases to be heard live, even though there is video location less than 5 minutes from my office, while the drive to the actual office of hearings and appeals takes about an hour (much longer than that now, with I-696 partially closed). We’ll examine the shortcomings of video hearings in an upcoming article; in this piece, I want to concentrate on the importance of getting ready for a live hearing.
As I sit here writing this, I have 2 hearings the next day, and I’ve already prepped 1 of the clients, who is coming from Pennsylvania. Getting ready for a hearing really does require that I memorize the file, and not just do some quickie “review” of it. Before I ever read anything, however, I confirm which hearing officer will be deciding the case. Every hearing officer is unique, and they each have their own areas of particular interest, and that not only directs my focus, but what I emphasize to my client. To be sure, all the hearing officers share the same core group of concerns and ask some of the same questions, but there are also areas that, while important to some, are of little or no interest to others, and vice-versa. Knowing this is key to making sure I concentrate on the more important aspects of any particular file, and, in turn, preparing the client for the questions that will be asked regarding that. For example, if someone attends AA (although most of my clients do NOT), one hearing officer may want him or her to repeat a few steps of the program, while another will skip any specific questions like that and ask, instead, how often the person goes, and if he or she intends to keep going.
This isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds, and the hearing itself should not be feared. If there’s one misconception I’d like to clear up in this piece, it’s the idea that the hearing is some dramatic, “it all comes down to this!” moment. It’s not. In fact, license appeal cases are mostly won or lost through the documents we file, and that takes place long before you ever walk through the door for your hearing. If the substance use evaluation isn’t legally adequate and appropriately favorable, there’s nothing you can say or do at a hearing to fix that, and your appeal will be denied. Ditto if the letters of support aren’t good enough. The hearing is really nothing more than an opportunity to go in and confirm that the person described in those letters and depicted in that evaluation is, in fact, the person sitting in the hearing room. Doing everything right is the recipe for winning, and that’s exactly what will happen when I take a case, guaranteed.
Of course, it happens once in a while that, when you arrive and check in, you find out that your case, which was assigned to hearing officer “X” will instead be heard by someone else, because hearing officer “X” called in sick that day. If someone is not generally ready for this possibility, then all the specific preparation in the world won’t do much good. This means that the prep has to cover several things all at once. I have to know the facts of my client’s case, and this means not only when he or she got sober, but why. What was it that made that last drink the last drink? In addition, I have to know what kinds of questions the specific Secretary of State (SOS) hearing officer assigned to the case will be asking because of it, but also prep my client in a way that a last-minute substitution doesn’t leave us otherwise, well, unprepared. As I noted above, most (the vast majority, really) of my clients are not active in AA; some hearing officers will not ask a single question about that, while others will want to know if a person at least tried it, and, if so, why they didn’t like it.
This means I have to be ready for the expected as well as the unexpected, like getting shuffled off to a different hearing officer. So, by extension, does my client. Although this has only happened a handful of times in my 28-plus years as a lawyer, I am never phased by it because I know my clients case inside and out, and not just “enough” to do well only in front of the assigned hearing officer. As good as I am, though, sometimes, during the course of my prep session, a client will correct me, or explain something, or otherwise give me a new insight about his or her case that reinforces the importance of conferring before the hearing and going over everything thoroughly.
As I noted earlier, every hearing officer is unique. Once the hearing gets underway, some hearing officers will ask questions about the letters, or the letter writers, while others won’t even mention them. For my part, I have to memorize who those letter writers are and what they said in every case. Something can come up where, for example, it’s beneficial for me to point out to the hearing officer that a letter writer addressed that very issue. As a side note, the letters are a very important pillar of every case, but, in truth, about 99% of the letters that cross my desk need a lot of work before they’re ever good enough to be filed. Making sure they’e “good to go” is a critical part of my job. The last thing a hearing officer wants to read are what a colleague of mine calls “good guy letters,” or any letters that get into how tough it’s been for the person without a license, how much he or she needs one, or that otherwise suggest a license should be granted. Hearing officers know it’s tough without a license. One of them famously cuts people off if they wander into this subject area and says, “Everybody needs a license.” None of this, however, falls within the purpose of the letters as required by the rule governing license appeals, and therefore, is of no help whatsoever. What matters is that they’re good, and I know them cold.
Sometimes, a hearing officer will ask me something technical about the evaluation, or ask the client about the conversation he or she had with the evaluator. While it would be impossible to anticipate every question that could come up in a hearing, the thing about a thorough prep session is that we will have gone over everything, and the client understands that the proceeding isn’t like a math test, where you have to remember some tricky formula. Instead, all you need to do is sit there and be truthful. There is no formula beyond that. This means, then, that the prep session isn’t about anything like “getting your story straight,” but rather how to tell your story. When you’re telling the truth, this just happens naturally.
No matter how much I say this, people are understandably nervous when they walk into the hearing room. This is why I want to dispel any notion that the hearing is like some kind of “It’s showtime!” moment. You don’t have to perform here; you simply have to tell your story. While it’s normal for someone to be nervous, at least in part, because they don’t know what to expect, it always happens that within a few minutes into the hearing, they calm down and relax. The hearing officers, for their part, want people to be calm, so most of them will help out with that, as well. Even the most sober and truthful person in the world is going to take longer to get through his or hearing if they’re stumbling through answers and otherwise unsure of themselves as they respond, so the whole thing just works better when a person is more at ease.
One of the real values of the prep session is that once the hearing gets going, the client realizes that it’s going off just as I explained it would, and stops worrying so much. And that’s one of the main reasons we prepare in the first place, isn’t it?
There’s not much more to the whole idea of the prep session than what we’ve covered. In my career, I have NEVER gone into a hearing without having done a thorough prep beforehand, and, just like the offer of a video hearing (or the mistake of calling a witness at a hearing), I never will, either. Part of the reason I guarantee to win every case I take is because I know that, from the beginning until the very end, I will make sure every part of the case is handled correctly, and that includes making sure every client is as relaxed as possible and completely prepared to go in to the hearing, answer questions, and tell his or her story.
If you are looking to hire a lawyer to restore your driver’s license or clear a Michigan hold on your driving record, do your homework. Read articles like this. Then check around. All of my consultations are confidential and done over the phone, right when you call. No matter where in the world you live, I can handle your case. If you’ve honestly quit drinking, then I can get you back on the road. Even if you still drink, maybe I can help you tip the decisional balance in favor of finally stopping so we can talk about getting your license back in the future Whatever your situation, you can reach my office Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (EST) at 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980. We’re here to help.