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What To Expect From Your Lawyer

Finding an attorney is the first step in your legal case. The second step is finding the right lawyer. Attorneys must follow the Rules of Professional Conduct laid out by the American Bar Association and adopted by every state except California, which has its own code of conduct for attorneys. Of course, that does not mean all attorneys follow the rules.

What are the rules that attorneys should follow? What should you do if they don't do what you want? Read on to learn how to manage your relationship with your attorney and what to expect during your legal matter.

What You Should Expect

The Rules of Professional Conduct outline what an attorney must be as a professional, an officer of the court, and a businessperson. The rules apply to legal services and the practice of law.

Communication

Beginning with your first meeting, your attorney should explain your case to you in terms you can understand. The client is the one who directs the course of the case; the attorney's role is to provide legal advice and knowledge. You must understand the matter enough to make informed decisions about your case.

Your attorney must review your case and let you know all possible outcomes, both good and bad. If an attorney says, "This case is a slam dunk, no problem!" you should find a new attorney. There are no guarantees in law. A good lawyer will tell you both the good results and the negative results that may happen in your case.

You should get regular updates on your case. Some legal cases, such as personal injury claims, take months or years to resolve. During those months or years, very little happens. You may wonder if your attorney is really working for you. Your lawyer should explain when to expect updates or that updates may consist of "nothing is happening."

Your attorney should advise you if they will charge for phone calls, emails, text messages, and other brief communications. Some clients call their attorneys repeatedly and then receive large bills for phone meetings. If the attorney doesn't tell you, ask. Communication must go both ways.

Competence

You want someone competent for your legal representation. Just because someone has a license to practice law does not mean they are competent in your type of case. There are dozens of practice areas and hundreds of subspecialties. Before you retain a lawyer, you must be sure they can handle your legal problem.

Each state bar association website has a search tool that lets you see an attorney's area of law, if they are in good standing with the bar, where they have practiced and for how long, and any legal organizations or pro bono work they do. This can help you find an experienced lawyer specializing in your area.

When you meet with your attorney, explain your legal issue in detail and ask about their plans for your case. This gives you some sense of their competence in handling your type of case.

Ethical Rules

Despite countless jokes through the ages, attorneys must follow a set of ethical rules toward their clients. Violating ethics rules and regulations can result in disciplinary action, suspension, or disbarment. Each state maintains a website where clients can check attorneys to see if they were disciplined or suspended for misconduct.

Each state's requirements are slightly different, but all follow the ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct and include:

  • Maintaining attorney-client privilege, including among members of a law firm staff
  • Representing the client's interests above their own
  • Maintaining separate bank accounts for the law firm, client funds, and personal finances
  • Dealing fairly with the court, other attorneys, and other clients
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest

Fees

Legal fees are always a bone of contention between attorneys and clients. Lawyer's fees have been the source of almost as much comedy as lawyers themselves. Surprisingly, most states do not require written legal fee agreements beyond contingency fee agreements in personal injury cases. However, a smart client will insist on a written agreement that spells out the attorney's fees and other costs the client may have to pay.

There are several types of attorney fees and charges:

  • A retainer is a set fee paid to a lawyer for services or to keep the attorney on standby if a client needs future services. A retainer agreement spells out the terms of the retainer.
  • Flat fees are charged for handling a single incident, such as a DUI or a traffic ticket. An attorney may charge a flat fee for reviewing a case or writing a demand letter.
  • Hourly fees are charged for long-term representation. Lawyers charge differing hourly rates depending on who provides the legal work. The attorney receives the highest rate, then the associates, then paralegals or legal assistants.
  • Additional charges, such as filing fees, court costs, depositions, or expert fees, may be deducted from the retainer fee or added to the client's bill.

Do not be afraid to ask questions about your fee agreement. The one legal document you must understand is the agreement between you and your attorney. If you do not understand the fee agreement and the attorney will not explain it, leave and find another attorney.

What You Must Do For Your Lawyer

The attorney-client relationship creates responsibilities for the client, too. If you want your attorney to do the very best they can for you, you have to do the best you can for your attorney. Some of the things your lawyer you to do are:

  • Tell the truth about your legal situation. In some criminal cases, your attorney may not want to know if you're guilty, but they need to know if your fingerprints are on the murder weapon.
  • Remember, you're not the only client. Your attorney will give you 100% of their time while you're there, but they can't give you 100% of their day. Just like your doctor, your lawyer has other people demanding their attention.
  • Communicate. If your attorney calls you, be sure to call them back right away. If they send you legal documents or paperwork, return it when it is due. You expect them to communicate with you, be sure you return the favor.
  • Always tell them if you cannot make a court hearing or other court proceeding. This is very important. Your attorney can get sanctioned if you fail to appear. You can go to jail.

You are in charge of the attorney-client relationship. Your attorney is working for you. You need legal help, but the attorney should not be making all the decisions. If you are not happy with your legal representation, return to your lawyer referral service and find a new attorney.

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