This will be the 7th article in my “loose series” about the Michigan driver’s license restoration and clearance process. This short piece will focus on how I prepare my clients for their actual license appeal or clearance hearings before the Michigan Secretary of State’s Administrative Hearing Section (AHS). This may seem to be a case of putting the cart before the horse, because in the previous article, we looked at the hearing itself. However, it occurred to me that in order to explain how I “prep” my clients, I’d first have to explain so much about the hearing itself I’d wind up doing a hack job on both the hearing and the prep session, or otherwise create a really long and hard to follow “twofer” article that would be long and confusing. Now, since I’ve already outlined how the hearing plays out, we can keep things nice and brief and talk about how to get ready for it.
The real key to success in the license restoration process is that we’re telling the truth. This begins from the day I take a case, because I require my clients to be genuinely sober. This lack of BS affects everything we do throughout the case, from our first, 3-hour meeting to the substance use evaluation, through the letters of support, and, ultimately, the hearing itself. It is this true story of your transition from drinker to non-drinker that is the foundation of your appeal. Getting ready for your hearing is all about this, and not about memorizing stuff that’s not actually part of your recovery. If you don’t attend AA, for example, you don’t have to learn any of it and otherwise pretend that you go. One of the most important parts of your “prep” is reviewing the facts of your case – the reality of how you used to be compared to how you are now – and understanding how they’ll be examined by the particular hearing officer assigned to decide it.
To begin, I have to “prep” myself before I can prep my client. Throughout my time with a client and the file, I will become familiar with his or her story. I am, after all, the person who reads and edits every single support letter. Before I can even think of calling my client to prep him or her for the hearing, I have to memorize the case first. And by “memorize,” I mean just that. It’s not enough for me to just review a file; I have to re-read every word of the evaluation and the letters or support. I have to remember your sobriety date (even if you don’t) and know who wrote your letters and what they said in them. Then I have to think about the hearing officer assigned to your case and how he or she will likely perceive all of that information, and the kinds of questions he or she will ask, or want asked. Only then will I know how the hearing will play out, and only then will I be able to call you and get you ready for what is going to happen.
This should make clear that, at least with me, the “prep” is not some generic, “here’s what to expect” pep talk. No matter how hard I pound home the idea that all we really need to do is go in and tell the truth, it is natural for someone to be nervous. For many people, the whole process, much less going through a hearing, is something they’ve never done before, and for others, the last time or times they tried (without me, of course), things didn’t work out very well, and they lost. I need to be able to tell my client exactly how the proceeding will play out. And this is yet another place where all that “truth and honesty” stuff become important, because if things ever do go off script, there’s no BS story to have to keep together.
Sometimes, we have to deal with the unexpected, but, we have to be ready for that. Over the course of my years, I’ve shown up for hearings assigned to one hearing officer, only to find that he or she called in sick, and that a different hearing officer would be handling it, instead. Rather than get all nervous and tell my client, “change of plans,” I can look at him or her and say that the hearing itself may not go off quite as we thought, but there’s nothing to worry about because all you have to do is be honest. Besides, I’m right there to make sure everything goes smoothly, no matter what. I expect that when the hearing is over, the client can nod in confident agreement to me and say something like “that went pretty much exactly as you said it would.” If we do encounter something unanticipated, however, like a different hearing officer, it should also be the case that, since we’re here because you really have quit drinking, we have nothing to worry about. As Mark Twain’s famously observed “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
My default scheduled prep time with my clients is the day before the hearing, with an understanding that if I don’t call during the business day, we’ll do it after hours. Often enough, I’ll try and reach out to my clients before that, but that’s on me. Thus, I may try to call someone a few days before the hearing, but I have no expectation that I will be able to connect or that it will be a convenient time for him or her to speak. If it happens, it happens. Or not. For all the possibilities, I will most often try to reach out to my client during working hours the day before the hearing, and even if he or she cannot talk, I’ll call back later, at night.
How important is the “prep?” As a lawyer who does well over 120 license appeal cases a year, and has racked up countless hearings, I have never, ever, once gone into a hearing without having thoroughly prepared my client. I’ve never had a panic attack in my life, either, but the thought of a hearing without a prep seems like it could drive me to one.
Exactly how I do a prep and what I go over, is, to at least some extent, unique to every case. That said, there is a kind of proprietary aspect to this, as well. I do know that my method has been refined to near-perfect simply because of the sheer number of cases I’ve handled, all backed by a first time win guarantee that, fortunately, I almost never have to honor. As another saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
In many of my previous driver’s license restoration articles, on this blog, I explain how part of the process of putting a case together involves detailing your recovery story. I use the word “detailing” here because while some people really have a firm grasp on the story of their transition from drinker to non-drinker, others have never really thought about much about it other than just having lived through it. In either case, it’s part of my job to distill the essence of those profound life changes into your case. This is what we keep referring to as “the truth” – the truth that we’ll be telling at the hearing. This is your story, and an important part of the prep for the hearing is learning the framework in which it will be told.
I begin my prep sessions with a quick review of the relevant legal issues we went over originally, at our first meeting. As much as the hearing is about your story, it’s also about those 2 key issues in every license appeal case – that your alcohol problem is “under control,” and that it is “likely to remain under control.” Both your substance use evaluation and your letters of support are key to proving those things, so we’ll talk about how they do that.
Then we’ll talk about your hearing officer, because each one has a unique way of conducting a hearing, and that fact alone more or less dictates the way the hearing itself will transpire. In the broader context, 3 of the 5 hearing officers want the lawyer to do most, if not all, of the questioning, while the other 2 have the lawyer start things out and then “step aside” so they can ask their own specific questions. This is not as easy as compiling some list of the questions asked by each hearing officer, because those questions will vary depending on the facts of the case and their particular areas of interest.
For example, this week I’ll be conducting a clearance hearing for an out-of-state client who is active in AA. Most of my clients are not active in AA, but this fellow goes to meetings at least once a week and even has a sponsor. The hearing officer assigned to his case is probably going to ask him, randomly, to recite a few steps from the program, but won’t be interested in how he uses any of the AA principles in his life. A different hearing officer a few rooms down, however, would almost certainly ask him what particular steps are important to his recovery, while yet another of the hearing officers would simply ask how long he’s been involved in the program, and then move on.
The questions asked of this client by his assigned hearing officer would be very different if he had never gone to AA in his life, different still if he had gone for a year (this usually represents going by court-order) then stopped, and different again if he had gone for 3 or 4 years and then dropped out. Thus, being prepared is not about going over some simple list of questions as much as it is an understanding of the facts of your case and how your particular hearing officer will analyze them, and through what kind of questions. To be sure, if your lawyer doesn’t have extensive experience appearing in front of your assigned hearing officer, then you’ll get no real help there, and any kind of “prep” he or she tries isn’t really much of a prep at all.
Of course, I will also go over the questions that I’ll be asking. Just like the hearing officers, there are some major points I want to cover in every case, but there are also key and particular facts unique to your situation that must be brought out, as well. Whatever the background, I’m going to develop things with my own questions so we’ll go over them. For example, in some of my prior cases I’ve had ex-spouses write good letters of support, and that’s always helpful. A few of those cases have been made all the better because there were no minor children involved so that it didn’t look like the former partner just wanted the person to win his or her license back to make child sharing duties easier. Thus, if I get a letter from such a person who stands to gain absolutely nothing, you can be darn sure I’m going to make a big deal of that. In cases like that, it’s not uncommon to hear that the drinking was a contributing, if not the main factor in the breakup, but since the other person has gotten sober, he or she and the ex have repaired things to the point where they get along rather well now.
You can’t make this stuff up. Neither can you let it go to waste by not properly and timely bringing it to center stage. Important things like this aren’t really anything for the client to worry about, though, because I’ll know when and how to do it; these are the kinds of things we’ll go over in our prep session.
The prep then, requires me to first memorize a file, then get my client ready for exactly how the hearing will proceed in front of his or her hearing officer. It’s important, but, as we noted earlier, because it’s about telling the truth, it’s not all that hard. This isn’t some collegiate math test where you better have memorized some complicated formula. This is Mark Twain whispering in you ear that there’s nothing to remember because you are, in fact, telling the truth. The prep, however, is, and must be, unique to the facts of your case and the hearing officer assigned to it.
If you need to win back your license or otherwise clear a Michigan hold on your driving record and you really have quit drinking (meaning you’re honestly sober), I can do that, guaranteed. If you’re looking to hire a lawyer, we’re here to help Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (EST) at 586-465-1980. All consultations are confidential and done over the phone, right when you call my office.