The Attorney-Client Relationship, A Two-Way Street

I have been practicing law for 10 years and my office tagline, “personal attention, professional results” was derived from my perception that most clients seek a lawyer they can talk to and trust with their important legal matters. An attorney should not use his paralegal, secretary or other staff person as a barrier between himself and the client. While support staff are of vital importance to a lawyer’s practice and can help clients with many of their questions, often the client wants to talk directly to her attorney. Regardless of whether a client pays an attorney an hourly fee, a retainer, a contingent fee or nothing at all, it is important that the attorney and client communicate regarding significant developments in the case.

One of the most frequent complaints from clients to the North Carolina State Bar is that their attorneys fail to return their phone calls or otherwise keep them abreast as to the status of their case. Admittedly, attorneys do become busy and it is important for clients to remember that sometimes it is just not possible to be available to take a phone call. If I am devoting two hours of my afternoon to prepare a client for his deposition, then it is not possible (or would be somewhat rude) to interrupt this time to take a phone call from another client unless the call is a dire emergency. However, it is important that I return that client’s phone as soon as practical.

Here are some things that clients can do to help their attorney in handling their case:

Keep good records . Organize financial documents, receipts, medical bills, records and other items. In many cases, the sheer number of documents to be reviewed will require a good deal of the attorney’s time but the less organized the documents are that you provide your attorney, the more time it will take him to review them. This can be especially important if you are paying your attorney an hourly fee. After hiring your lawyer, you should create a notebook, folder, envelope or other file system in which you place documents that may be needed in your case. One additional note is that clients generally should not write directly on documents that they intend to provide to their attorney or use in their case unless directed to do so by the attorney.

Listen to your lawyer . Most people hire a lawyer because they realize the need for a trained professional to review and handle their situation. While the ethical rules that govern lawyers’ conduct state that the strategic legal decisions are within the province of the lawyer, most of the decision-making power in your case rests with the client. So, for example, while the lawyer may decide whether or not it is advisable to take the deposition of a witness, you alone make the final decision on whether to settle your case and for how much. “Listen to your lawyer” is not necessarily the same as “do as your lawyer says to do”. It is not necessary that you agree with your lawyer and follow her recommendations but understand her reasoning and the pros and cons of your decision.

Ask questions if necessary . It is okay to ask questions about your case especially when you are being called upon to make a decision. Good lawyers provide their clients with the information needed to make informed decisions pertaining to their case. The old adage of “the only dumb question is the one that you do not ask” applies here.

Do not hide information . For the most part, your conversations with your lawyer are privileged and cannot be shared with other persons. The lawyer is the last person to whom you should lie or misrepresent information. Failing to give your lawyer truthful information handicaps her ability to effectively represent you and may also have devastating results for your case. By being honest with your lawyer, you can have a frank discussion of your case, the applicable law and the prospects for your case.

Respond appropriately and on time . Any attorney-client relationship is a team effort in which the attorney will, from time-to-time, call upon the client to provide certain information or otherwise actively assist in the case. If your attorney sends you some documents and provides a deadline for you to return those documents to his office, try to complete the documents as fully as possible and meet the stated deadline. If, for some reason, this is not possible call the attorney ahead of time and let him know. Sometimes failing to respond by a deadline can negatively affect claims and defenses in your case.

By following these simple ground rules, you can greatly improve your relationship with your lawyer and often aid in the handling in your case. A client’s trust is a very serious asset and a lawyer must work to earn and maintain that trust. Lawyers are people too and we just ask that clients meet us halfway so that, together, we can get the job done!

John O’Neal is the owner of the O’Neal Law Office in Greensboro and can be contacted at 336-265-0231.

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