The most common complaint about attorneys is that they do not keep their clients advised of the status of their legal matters. Indeed, this is the most common reason for clients to file complaints/grievances with the varous state bar associations.
This guide presents what I believe are the essential basics of what any client should be able to expect from their attorney. It is not intended to be an exclusive listing but a summary of basics which you may want to discuss with an attorney before hiring them. You should see how comfortable you are with their answers, as well as how comfortable you are with them personally. If you and your prospective attorney do not “click”, it is unlikely that you will be happy as your matter progresses.
In no particular order of importance:
- COMMUNICATION: Your attorney should return your telephone calls and/or letters and/or e-mails within 24 hours as a general rule. Sometimes situations arise where an attorney may be in trial or otherwise devoting much more attention to a particular client but even then someone from your attorney’s office should at least let you know about it and when you can expect to hear back from the attorney or his paralegal about your inquiry.
- COMMUNICATION: Your attorney should provide you with copies of at least the key correspondence, discovery demands and responses, pleadings (motions, orders, etc.) which relate to your case as they occur. Many attorneys routinely copy their clients with these materials and even more now at least send them via e-mail.
- COMMUNICATION: It is less common but also helpful for a client to receive copies of key correspondence, discovery demands and responses, pleadings, etc. which the attorney receives from the other side. Again, this can be done via e-mail which I find a very effective way to communicate with my clients. Indeed, quite often I am able to respond to an e-mail inquiry of a client within minutes or hours if it is a simple inquiry.
- COMMUNICATION: While you may not always be able to communicate directly with your attorney; often you communicate with a paralegal especially in larger law firms. However, if you believe that you truly need to communicate with your attorney, whether by telephone or in person, then his/her office should be willing to schedule a telephone or office conference within a reasonable period of time.
- STRATEGIES: Your attorney should explain to you the options you may have in various given situations. Often, there are several strategies which may be utlized in different situations. While the attorney is and should be in control of how a case is litigated, it is important that you be provided with various options, the pro’s and con’s of the various options, and an opportunity to be heard about how you would prefer important issues be decided. When you understand what is happening and why in your own case, clients tend to be more satisfied and trusting of their attorney.
- PREPARATION. If you have to testify in a deposition, a hearing, and especially before a trial, you have the right to expect that your attorney will actually spend some time to prepare you for the proceeding. A client that goes into a deposition, a hearing, or a trial without having spent quite a significant amount of time with his/her attorney has a right to be concerned and to question the attorney or his/her paralegal as to why they are not being prepared for the proceeding.
- FEES: If you are on a contingency fee contract, you may not reguarly see invoices as they may not matter unless your attorney seeks to recover fees from the other side as part of a contractual provision or statute. However, if you are paying an hourly fee, you should be receiving regular periodic invoices (monthly is most typical) with a detailed listing of what anybody in the law firm who bills you for their time (attorney, paralegal) did on each day in which they worked on your case and how much time they billed for each such service. Invoices whic simply say something like “August — 23 hours, $xxxx.xx” are something which I believe clients should be concerned about and which many state bar associations which establish professional rules of conduct for the attorneys in their states discourage or perhaps even do not permit. You should know everything you are paying for, whether fees or costs, and have the opportunity to ask questions if any portion of your invoices confuse you. Believe it or not, attorneys do make inadvertent mistakes (I certainly have) in inputting time and sometimes you may get billed for 10 hours when they meant to bill for 1 hour or time from another client may be accidentally put onto your invoice.
- PERSONALITY: Every client and every attorney (and his/her staff) have different personalities. You may want a compassionate AND aggressive advocate but not everyone has a great bedside manner. This does not mean you are without a good attorney. However, you do have the right to be comfortable, have faith in, and trust your attorney and his/her staff. You should try to establish that comfort level from the beginning, before you hire him/her. However, as a matter progresses, you also have the right to at least expect a personality with which you can work. If you find that you and your attorney are simply not interacting well, you should try to resolve it — perhaps a phone call or a letter, etc. In the end, if it cannot be resolved, you should consider seeking a new attorney. Your legal matter, large or small, is too important to you for you to lack faith in your attorney.
- GAMESMANSHIP or PLAYING POKER: It is important to understand that during a legal proceeding, and especially during negotiations, lawyers play “games”. Your legal matter is very serious to you but it is important to understand how things are done. Bluffing, some mis-direction, etc. is common for attorneys on both sides. However, you should have a basic understanding of what your attorney is doing and why so that you are not left in the dark. Legal matters and litigation are quite serious. However, if your attorney tells you that the other side is just “playing a game” or that your attorney is “playing some poker” it is important to understand the “facts of life” and that often this is how things are done and deals get accomplished. Regardless, you should not be in the dark.
- SETTLEMENT: In civil cases, statistics show that about 90% of all cases settle before trial. A settlement, by definition, means that both sides give a little. No side can “win” in a settlement. It is a “compromise”. You might come out where you hoped or even better if your attorney handled your case effectively and/or played the “game” better than the other side, but still typically a settlement occurs when both sides perceive the side giving or paying feels that they have given more than they wanted and the side receiving feels that they have accepted less than they deserved. If you don’t want to settle, it is your right — not your attorney’s to make the decision. However, if you choose to ignore your attorney’s advice then realize the outcome could be worse down the road or at trial. If your attorney recommends a settlement that makes you uncomfortable, before agreeing, discuss with your attorney why the recommendation is being made so that you can made an informed final decision.
- THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE ATTORNEYS ON BOTH SIDES: Sometimes the relationships between attorneys are good and sometimes they are quite adversarial and caustic. Every case is different and each attorney is different. However, please understand that just because the attorneys on both sides seem to sometimes work “together” this does not mean that one or both attorneys are selling out their client(s). There are alot of “professional courtesies” that are given, especially in litigation. Often, attorneys will agree to something because they know to fight it is fruitless and would make them and you look bad before a Judge. A recommended settlement does not necesarilly equal an attorney who is working against you. If you have questions or concerns, ask them. If you don’t get an answer, put your questions or concerns in writing. Trust me, attorneys know that when a client puts something in writing they had better deal with it or they face potential problems down the road. However, to some extent attorneys will cooperate. This does not necesarilly mean they are working against you no matter how much you “hate” the other side. If you have trust and faith in your attorney this will not be a problem . If you are concerned, and sometimes your concern may be justified, try to get answers from your own attorney first and, if necessary, seek a second opinion from another attorney. Sometimes that second attorney will actually tell you that your attorney is doing what he/she is supposed to do and help you feel more comfortable with what is going on without you having to change attorneys.
These are just some basics. Hopefully, you have good, positive relationships with your attorney and his/her staff. If not, try to resovle them in a straight-forward manner. If this doesn’t work, seek a second opinon before you decide to do something rash. The law and litigation is complex. However, you do have a right to have your attorney keep you advised, explain things that need to be explained, and work to minimize your stress with information.
I hope this guide assists you. If you are in Florida, especially, and seek a consultation please feel free to contact my office.
Stuart M. Address, Esq.
Law Offices of Stuart M. Address, P.A.