Hiring a lawyer is always an act of trust. You're putting your personal and financial future in the hands of a stranger. To make sure that the choice you made choice is a good one, and to ensure that you get what you need from the attorney-client relationship, it helps to know some of the basics about what makes up a good attorney-client relationship, how an attorney works to ensure your trust, and how you can get the most out of this relationship.
How an Attorney-Client Relationship Legally Forms
An attorney-client generally forms when a prospective client expressly requests legal advice, the attorney expressly agrees to provide the advice, and a contract is signed. However, it can sometimes form when a person seeks advice or assistance from an attorney, the advice or assistance sought pertains to matters within the attorney’s professional competence, and the attorney expressly or impliedly agrees to give or actually gives the desired advice or assistance.
What to Expect from the Attorney
First, the attorney owes you a duty of confidentiality. Understanding this duty is vital to encouraging clients to tell their attorney everything that may be important to the legal matter so that the attorney can provide the best legal representation possible. The attorney cannot reveal information relating to the representation of the client and applies not only to matters communicated in confidence. It also includes any information that could reasonably lead to the discovery of such information concerning the identity of a client, or the legal matter at the heart of the representation. It may also include information relating to the representation obtained from any source. An attorney can't disclose anything the client discusses without their permission, not even to a court. All communications are confidential, with very few exceptions, such as the client’s intent to commit a crime.
Second, the attorney owes a duty to provide competent representation, which that they must employ the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation necessary for legal representation for the kind of work the client needs.
Duty to Act Ethically & Reasonably
The attorney in an attorney-client relationship also owes a duty to act ethically and with reasonable diligence and promptness. A number of items fall under the umbrella of diligence, such as being on time for appointments, managing a reasonable workload, and communicating with a client promptly, whether it’s convenient for the attorney or not. This duty also means that the attorney should not represent you while also representing someone whose interests are against yours, not charge unreasonable fees, and not mix the money that they owe you with their own money.
Decision-Making in an Attorney-Client Relationship
During an attorney-client relationship, the client becomes legally bound by whatever decisions the attorney does or does not make, and the consequences of those actions or inactions. For this reason, it is crucial that the client knows that they can still make their own decisions, and they should do so in moments when they do not want the attorney to act for them.
Even with an attorney leading the way, the client should still pay attention to the case and know that they remain responsible for important decisions that are carried out by the attorney. The client also must accept and remember that they have the right to decide how to solve the legal dispute, such as when to accept a settlement and in what amount. An attorney can steer a case in the direction of that goal, or work towards a goal to then present to the client, but the client is the first and last person with the authority to accept a resolution, with some exceptions. For example, an attorney can’t break the law while acting on the client’s behalf.
Attorneys Take Each Step for Their Clients
As mentioned, the attorney in an attorney-client relationship is there to take each step on behalf of the client and move the case forward. In doing so, the attorney is the one who chooses “the means to an end” for the case. The attorney might want to investigate available evidence, review the evidence the opposition intends to use, create courtroom and negotiation strategies, and so on. The client should leave these processes up to the attorney while still understanding that the client gets the final say if desires.
With that said, an attorney who is given extensive latitude to work on their own when building a client’s case should still consult with the client regularly. Surprising a client with a new strategy or decision is not beneficial for either party and could deteriorate the attorney-client relationship. Although, there are sometimes incidents in which an attorney has to act quickly and make a decision without first talking to the client, such as when the case is before a judge or jury and an unexpected complication or question arises. The attorney must then be ready to act in a way that should reasonably reflect the client’s objectives, and later explain clearly to the client why they acted as such.
Honest, Open Communication in an Attorney-Client Relationship
When you don't trust your attorney, it can cause a complete and irredeemable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship. According to studies, one of the most prevalent ethics complaints that attorneys get is for misinformation or lack of communication. At the beginning of the relationship, they should discuss when, how often, and from whom the client can expect the attorney’s office to communicate with them. This helps the attorney in a variety of ways, such as making sure they have all the facts they need to understand the client’s objectives, allowing them to gather all the facts to most effectively help the client, and ensuring that they can ascertain if they can ethically represent the client.
Open and honest communication is greatly important so that the client can understand many important aspects of the case, such as:
- Scope of the representation
- Type of fee arrangement and how the trust money will be used
- What additional actions on their part are necessary to handle the matter
- Attorney’s inability to guarantee a particular result
Setting Reasonable Client Expectations
It is absolutely normal that a client will come into a firm’s door with at least some expectations as to how their case will go. These expectations likely come from their own knowledge of the situation, their innate feeling of fairness and equity, and some understanding of how the law works, possibly through experience. Expectations may also come from the advice they have received from friends, other professionals, the internet, and a variety of other sources, some better than others.
Whatever their expectations are, it is the attorney’s job to ensure that their client knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of their case. But that isn’t all, the attorney must talk about several other important things, such as that they practice professionally, are civil to opposing counsel, and that the client should not expect “Rambo” litigation tactics. Also, they should make every effort to be available for their client; however, they are also expected to address the concerns of other clients.
Relationships Flow Both Ways
While an attorney is legally and ethically bound to uphold duties owed to their clients, a client also needs to play their part as well. What are some things that you can do to build a strong, successful relationship with your attorney? Understand that communication goes both ways. There is nothing that an attorney likes less than learning things after the fact that would have been important had they known it earlier. This can be incredibly debilitating to your case, so make sure to stay in touch with your attorney and keep them fully informed and updated.
Be Proactive About Maintaining Attorney-Client Confidentiality
Revealing sensitive information to the other side can undermine the case that the lawyer is building for you. If you give a friend sensitive information and the friend gives it to the other party, you are not protected by attorney-client confidentiality. Also, make sure to utilize all that your attorney has to offer and take advantage of the expertise of the professional that you’ve hired. They know the law and are detached from your case in a way that you can't be. Part of the goal of the attorney is to allow you to feel that you can take a deep breath and step away, confident that they will handle the case in the best way possible.
Finally, for the relationship to be truly successful, both the attorney and client need to understand how their actions are affecting the other, for good and bad. Winning the case does not ensure a strong attorney-client relationship. For both, the advice is the same: arrive on time, take time to listen and understand each other, give it your best effort, and abide by the rules, written and unwritten, that guide you.
If you are interested in speaking with one of our family law attorneys from Pacific Cascade Legal during a free consult, you can call our office at (503) 227-0200.