This article makes me nervous to write. But it shouldn’t. I am going to tell you what you’re entitled to from your lawyer.
Your rights with your lawyer are not optional. Lawyers are required to follow the Rules of Professional Responsibility for their state. We are regulated by the Courts and the State Bar Associations. In my case, I am a member of three State Bar Associations (Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington). I am required to follow the Rules of Professional Responsibility for each state.
Here are your rights with an attorney:
- You are entitled to good communication from your lawyer. This is the obligation that is hardest for me to meet all the time for every client. You should know what’s going on in your case. You should understand, or at least have a sense of the documents in your case.
- I ask for your understanding on this one. I have other clients and am subject to Court deadlines. Sometimes I will not be able to respond to your call, email, or text as quickly as I like. I try to respond to emails within 48 hours. You can text me about quick things like what time are we meeting, or where is the Courthouse. But in general, texting is a poor way to communicate a legal issue.
- Communication is hard. My client agreements contain my communication policy. I have a written communication policy because it helps set expectations, both for me and you.
- Remember, good communication is not perfect communication. I will do my best to live up to my communication policy.
Your client file
- You are entitled to all the legal documents in your case. Typically, as the case progresses, you’ll get each document from me as an attachment in an email or in hard copy. At the end of the case, you can ask me for a complete file, which I would make available as a .zip file via a secure folder. Remember, you should keep your file confidential.
- I cannot keep your file if you withhold payment. You can ask for your file at any time, and I’ll give it to you, whether or not you’re paid up.
Control over major decisions
- You have a right to control the major decisions in a case. An example of a major decision in a civil case is whether we accept a settlement offer. You decide whether you testify in a criminal case. You decide what the goals are. An example of a decision I control is related to whether we agree to a continue a deadline or hearing, or disclose a document in a response to a request, or how we schedule things.
- For settlement, I am required to communicate all settlement offers to you. I may advise you to reject them, but remember, that decision is up to you. I cannot settle a case without your express authority.
- You have a right to an attorney without conflicts. That means that I can’t represent someone who has a conflict of interest with you. If you’re driving a car and are struck by a semi-truck, I can’t represent both you and the trucking company, for example.
- You have a right to a competent attorney. When I do something for you, I need to do it competently or get help so that it’s done competently. I’m good at a lot of things, but I am not good at everything. If something is outside of my skillset, I either need to level up or loop in another attorney for that project.
- You have a right to under your legal fee and to be charged a reasonable fee. I want to be paid for performance. My goal with this business is to make a premium when I do well for you, and less if we don’t achieve all of your goals.
- Of course, the flat fee situation in criminal defense is different (the ethics rules state that you can’t pay me a bonus, for example, if I get your charge dropped).
- What constitutes a reasonable fee is a can of worms. There are ethical decisions all over the map. In fact, there is a Wyoming State Bar Committee for fee disputes, so if you had a dispute over a fee, you would go to that committee. I want to tell you right now that in the last 300 cases, I have not had any fee disputes with a client. We need to have the kind of relationship where if you’re worried about the fee, then we talk about it and work it out between us. That committee is the last step in a fee dispute, not the first.
- In terms of understanding the fee, I am required to track expenses and costs that I want to be reimbursed for. I don’t nickel and dime people over copying fees. So I don’t even track my copy costs. The idea of charging you for postage to send you a routine letter is garbage. I don’t do that either. If it’s a package that my legal assistant is making a special trip to overnight via FedEx, I’ll probably charge you for that.
- If I am going to incur an expense on your behalf, I’ll typically get your permission ahead of time in writing. For example, I won’t hire a private investigator and expect you to pay for it, unless you give me permission. Certain travel costs, mandatory filing fees, and other costs, I’ll incur those and expect to be reimbursed, as set out in our fee agreement.
We’re in the weeds here. Let’s get back to the big picture.
I will treat you fairly. I expect that you’ll value my expertise and skills and treat me fairly in return. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Call or email me and we’ll figure it out.