What to Expect from an Attorney

What to Expect from an Attorney

by Belle Wong, J.D., June 2015

At the attorney consultation, you asked a number of questions and felt reassured by the attorney’s manner, experience and expertise. After the consultation was over, you knew you’d found a lawyer to help you deal with the legal matter that’s been keeping you up at nights. But you still find yourself feeling uncertain about the legal services you’re obtaining—what exactly can you expect from your new lawyer?

It’s common to have questions and concerns about the legal process you’re about to undergo, as well as what you can expect from the attorney-client relationship. Unless you’re an experienced veteran of the legal system, you’ll have many questions you’ll want answered, if only for your own peace of mind. Top among these questions is what to expect from an attorney.

What You Can Expect from Your Attorney

While every lawyer is different—for example, lawyers charge different fees and work with clients and on cases in different ways—there are some basic things that you can expect from the lawyer you’ve hired.

Communication. Communication is at the core of a good attorney-client relationship; in fact, many states have specific regulations concerning communications between an attorney and his or her client. Your lawyer should explain the legal issues surrounding your case so you understand what you’re dealing with. If you have any questions specific to the case, your lawyer should be able to answer them.

It’s important, too, that you do ask questions whenever you have any; you’ll be best able to make important decisions related to your case if you have all the information you need, so if there’s anything you don’t understand, you should ask your lawyer for clarification.

You can also expect your attorney to respond to communications from you in a timely manner. Of course, your case is not the only one your attorney is handling at any given time, and at times a prompt response may not be possible. For example, your attorney may be in court. But still, in such cases you should receive timely acknowledgment that your communications have been received, and some idea as to when you can expect a reply, if not from your lawyer, then from his or her paralegal or legal assistant.

In addition to answering your legal questions and providing you with advice about your case, your lawyer should also keep you informed on the progress of your case, including any new developments that occur, and any delays which may develop. He or she should also discuss with you the various options which are open to you, as well as the probable outcomes and potential setbacks associated with each of these options, in order to equip you with the information you need to make the important decisions you’ll need to make about your case.

Attorney Ethics. Your lawyer has a number of obligations toward his or her clients. Every state has specific rules of ethics which apply to attorneys practicing in the state. While these ethical rules and attorney duties vary, some common ethical requirements include:

  • Maintaining attorney-client privilege. This means everything you discuss with your lawyer is confidential.
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest. Your lawyer cannot also represent someone whose interests are in conflict with yours when it comes to the legal matter for which you’ve hired your lawyer.
  • Staying within the bounds of the law. Your attorney cannot do anything illegal in order to further your case.
  • Providing clients with competent representation. This is discussed in the next section below.

Attorney Competence. While you can expect your lawyer to act professionally, mistakes do occasionally happen. Lawyers are, after all, human.

However, a lawyer also has a duty to provide you with competent representation. For example, if your legal matter is complex and in an area of law your lawyer is not experienced in, and he or she does not have the time to attain the knowledge and familiarity needed to advise you competently, then he or she should refer you to another attorney who does have the expertise required.

What if you find yourself in the hands of a lawyer who’s not able to represent you in a competent manner? An incompetent lawyer is one who acts in a way that a reasonably competent lawyer would not. If your lawyer makes an error while dealing with your case that a reasonably competent lawyer would not have made, and that error causes you damage of some sort—for example, you lose money as a result—then you may want to pursue a claim against your lawyer for malpractice. The incompetent behavior may be either procedural, such as failing to file an important document on time, or it may be ethical, such as representing two opposing sides in a legal matter.

Attorney Fees. Attorney fees are perhaps one of the most contentious issues arising from an attorney-client relationship. One of the things you should expect from your lawyer is an estimate of how much your case will cost, both in terms of attorney fees and also any other costs such as court filing costs.

It’s always a good idea to get a fee agreement in writing, whether or not such an agreement is a requirement in your state. You should also read through your fee agreement carefully, and ask questions about any parts you do not understand. Ideally, the fee agreement should state that you will receive itemized bills or invoices which details specifically what each person who worked on your case file did, for how long and on what days.

In addition to your attorney’s rate, you should also clarify with your attorney the rates which will be billed for work done by his or her legal staff, such as paralegals or legal assistants. If your lawyer is working on a contingent fee basis, which means he or she receives a fee only if you win your case, you may or may not receive invoices regularly, but you should know exactly how the fee will be determined in the event you win your case and also who is responsible for paying any costs which may arise during the progress of your case, such as court filing costs.

When you’ve obtained legal help by hiring an attorney, it’s understandable to have concerns about the legal process and what you can expect from your new attorney. While each lawyer is different, you can rest assured that there are some basic things which you can expect from any attorney you’ve hired.

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