© 2008 E. J. Kates
by Elizabeth J. Kates, Esq.
Family law is notorious for having attorney-client relationship problems. It seems we're always hearing about attorneys who withdraw at inconvenient times, demand unexpected trial retainers, or don't return phone calls promptly. Clients want to know what they reasonably can expect from their lawyers beyond a minimum adherence to bar regulations and ethics rules. They also want to know what they can do to bring out the best efforts from their own lawyer.
What a Client Has The Right to Expect from a Lawyer:
1. The lawyer understands that he or she is not the client's handler, parent, or boss, but the client's agent. The client is the principal in this relationship. While the lawyer may bring to that relationship a superior knowledge of the law, as well as objectivity, and also set case strategy, both of them should remember that it is the client who ultimately is the decision-maker and who is in charge. The lawyer acts in furtherance of the client's goals.
2. The lawyer will assist the client at the outset of a matter to identify and clarify the client's goals. The lawyer will llisten to what the client says without making assumptions, and make sure that the lawyer understands the client's point of view. The client's goals are based on the client's values, not the lawyer's. The lawyer will help the client, as necessary, to recognize the need for establishing representation goals, to articulate those goals, and to understand how they interact with and affect other goals, whether long- or short-term, legal or nonlegal. The lawyer will assist the client to prioritize incompatible goals and contingency plans, and to identify and resolve conflicts. The representation, including the lawyer's strategy decisions, will remain focused on furthering the goals as set by the client, not the attorney, and on furthering the interests of the client as prioritized by the client.
3. The lawyer will be competent, creative and knowledgeable. The lawyer will fully inform the client about the law and other relevant information bearing on the client's case and the client's legal rights (including in an interest-based negotiations process, such as collaborative law), as well as the availability and viability of different strategies to achieve the client's goals. The lawyer will not be so committed to any particular way of doing things that the lawyer will discount or overlook a strategy that may be more effective or in keeping with achieving the client's goals or values. All alternatives should be thoroughly discussed, including collaborative law, litigation, and mediation as well as the issues and problems that may arise with the choice of each, prior to proceeding. If there is to be a limited representation, the boundaries of that representation, and the issues that may arise because of it will be thoroughly discussed at the outset.
4. The lawyer will be responsive. That means that telephone calls and emails will be returned promptly, and that questions from the client wil be answered thoroughly. It means that the lawyer will take the time necessary to do this. The client also should feel comfortable confiding in the lawyer, asking questions, and disagreeing outright with the lawyer without fear of judgment or negative recriminations. At the same time, the client has the right to get only honest, truthful and complete opinions, answers and information from the lawyer given to the best of his or her ability, even if what the lawyer has to say is not what the client wants to hear and even if it is not comfortable for the client or the lawyer.
5. The lawyer will keep the client informed promptly of all information pertaining to the client's case, and communicate with the client regarding things expected of the client, such as dates on which matters are scheduled or discovery is due. This includes ongoing legal fees and costs associated with the matter. The lawyer also will assure that the client has as much notice as is reasonably possible prior to the client's being expected to attend meetings and hearings, or to produce information. In other words, the lawyer respects the client's time and schedule as much as his or her own. The lawyer will inform the client of what is needed in a way that expectations are clear. The lawyer also will let the client know if and when the lawyer runs into a snag in the case, or needs more time, more information, more money, to do more research, or to obtain assistance from another professional. There will not be unpleasant surprises caused by the lawyer, and when the lawyer makes a commitment to the client, it will be kept. That includes attorney-client confidentiality, including in connection with a collaborative representation, including if doing so in a collaborative matter means that the lawyer properly should withdraw. [note]
What a Lawyer Wants from a Client:
1. The client understands that it is the client's case, and that the lawyer is only the client's agent. That means that the client is forthcoming in providing all necessary information and direction that the lawyers needs or requests, focused in responding to the lawyer's questions, and conscientious in returning communications and keeping the lawyer informed as to how to get in touch with him or her. The client recognizes that in order to accomplish the foregoing, the client needs to ask sufficient questions to make sure the client understands what is occurring in the case, and be willing to confront the lawyer with the client's doubts, disagreements, or other information or opinions, including negative information or opinions, that the client may have.
2. The client takes an active part in his or her case. The client is committed to using his or her best efforts to prioritize scheduling, be available for meetings, and pay bills.
3. The client strives to be rational, thoughtful, organized and helpful. The client is willing to keep an open mind and hear what the lawyer has to say, even if it is not always what the client wants to hear. When the lawyer makes a request of the client or a recommendation for an action that the lawyer thinks will further the client's goals, the client generally complies with that unless the client can provide new information to the lawyer that the lawyer does not have, or point out something the client thinks the lawyer is not considering.
4. The client respects the lawyer's schedule, understanding that the lawyer has other clients, and that the lawyer will have times in which there is a court hearing or meeting, or the lawyer otherwise is unavailable. The client communicates with the lawyer in the manner and at the times preferred by the lawyer, and tries not to leave things to the last minute.
5. The client understands that the lawyer understands that the client is going through a stressful and emotional period, but that the lawyer cannot deal with all of the emotional issues arising from these problems. For this reason the client considers taking an exercise class, consulting a therapist, or participating in sports and other activities that can help relieve the stress.
Elizabeth Kates has practiced law in Florida for nearly 30 years. She is a director of the National Network on Family Law Policy, and was a charter member and director of Collaborative Lawyers of South Florida, Inc. for eight years before becoming Vice President and Director of Collaborative Lawyers Inc. Collaborative Lawyers, Inc. is a state-wide educational and professional development association and business directory of independent Florida attorneys at law and family law firms who practice in the areas of collaborative divorce and collaborative family law.
Information on this website should not be taken as legal advice. Laws change, situations differ, and there may be exceptions to general rules. Except as otherwise may be provided, this website and contents are © 2009 Collaborative Lawyers, Inc. Collaborative Lawyers, Inc., is a state-wide educational and professional development association and business directory of independent Florida licensed attorneys at law and law firms who practice in the areas of collaborative divorce and collaborative family law. It is not a law firm or attorney referral organization.