For some legal matters, hiring an attorney is sometimes the best option. When hiring an attorney for the first time, you may not know what to expect and how things will work. What follows is a short guide covering the basics of the attorney-client relationship to help you navigate communications and meetings with lawyers as well as to understand their fees and services.
Communications and Services
First and foremost, the attorney-client relationship is based on trust and is sacred in the eyes of the law—that is, a client can expect that the attorney, once hired, will keep communications confidential, and, in all but extreme circumstances, a court will protect disclosures of a client to an attorney as well.
Accordingly, in dealings with an attorney retained for representation, a client should be honest and forthcoming and always keep the lawyer updated on any changes in circumstances. In return, the client should expect that the attorney will do the following:
- Make sure he or she has no conflict of interest
- Behave ethically according to the applicable Rules of Professional Conduct
- Not abuse the justice system
- Advise the client of the payment structure and fee schedule
- Listen to the client's version of events and ask questions when appropriate to elicit pertinent information
- Keep client matters confidential
- Advise the client of his or her legal rights and responsibilities
- Perform any necessary research to answer questions and support the client's cause
- Represent the client's interests competently, professionally and diligently
- Propose a legal course of action to resolve the client's problem based on an independent professional analysis of applicable facts and law
- Assess the client's chances of winning a case honestly
- Inform the client of settlement offers and other possible resolutions
- Respect and deliver the client's decisions regarding the trajectory of the case, including whether to accept settlement offers
- Write and submit legal documents in a timely fashion
- Provide copies of important documents to the client
- Answer the client's questions and phone calls promptly
- Keep the client updated on case progress
In addition to being open and honest about the case, a client should also inform the attorney immediately if he or she is unhappy with the attorney's representation, has a question or problem about fees or billing, or has moved or changed phone numbers.
The client should also pay the lawyer as agreed, not ask him or her to perform illegal or unethical activities, and respond to the attorney's communications and requests for information promptly.
Expectations for Meetings
Meeting with an attorney for the first time can be stressful, but the client can minimize anxiety levels by being well-prepared. When meeting with an attorney, the client should bring any and all documents and other items that may be helpful to the attorney as he or she presents the case—it's better to bring too much than to have insufficient documentation. Depending on the legal issue, this may include copies of medical bills and records, accident and other police reports, photos, legal documents prepared by other attorneys, and more. When in doubt, ask the attorney what you should bring to the meeting.
Be aware that in some law offices, legal assistants or paralegals may be involved in the fact-gathering process and thereafter. This is not uncommon, particularly in larger law firms, and if this is the case, the attorney may inform the client as such, which will also help him or her know who to contact with questions or concerns.
Fees were mentioned briefly above, but they are worth discussing in greater depth. When hiring a lawyer, the client should find out the fees and fee schedule up front and get them in writing. This information will vary based on the type of case, location, experience of the attorney, complexity of the case, and many other factors.
Some lawyers charge hourly rates, while others charge a flat fee for certain services ($300 -$500) for drawing up a will, for example). In other situations, such as worker's compensation cases, the fee may be set by statutory law.
The two “fee” terms clients should be familiar with are “contingency fee” and “retainer fee.” In personal injury or wrongful death cases, lawyers often work on a contingency fee basis, which means they only collect money if they win the case; a client should find out how this fee is calculated beforehand. A “retainer fee,” on the other hand, is an amount set by the lawyer that a client must pay to “retain” his or her services before he or she will work on the case. Typically, the attorneys' fees are paid out of that money as work is completed.
For those who are planning on hiring an attorney for the first time, the idea of fees, meetings, requirements and confidentiality can sound overwhelming. But it doesn't have to be, as long as you know what to expect. For further questions about how a specific attorney-client relationship will work beyond this basic primer, there's no better person to ask than the attorney you're considering hiring.
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