Clients' Bill of Rights
Here are ten rights you should enjoy from the moment you interview, consult or hire a lawyer. Many of these rights are already guaranteed by law, but you can insist upon the rest from your particular lawyer. Lawyers also benefit when clients know their rights. That’s why every state should require that lawyers present a written copy of the Clients' Bill of Rights to their clients before they agree to represent them.
These first six rights are guaranteed to you in any state whose lawyer ethics rules follow the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct:
- Responsiveness - The right to have your calls, letters, questions, and concerns addressed promptly.
Clients often complain that lawyers never return their calls. Too often, a client is left in the dark, unaware of how her matter is proceeding. Everything that a lawyer does on your behalf has the potential to affect the outcome of your matter. It is just common sense that a lawyer should make sure you are regularly updated on how your case is going and promptly address any concerns or questions about the case you may have.
- Participation - The right to be present at all meetings and court appearances related to your matter, unless a court orders otherwise.
You need to understand the details of your legal situation, therefore being present during meetings and court appearances is essential to informed decision making.
- Deference - The right to have your goals respected by your lawyer, including whether to settle.
Just as your doctor should not make the final decision as to whether you should have surgery, a lawyer should not make final decisions about what actions you should take, including whether to settle, plead guilty or testify on your own behalf. A lawyer’s job is to help you make the best possible decisions, not to make them for you. However, you do not have the right to dictate how every element of the case is handled. Lawyers must use their best judgment on matters of legal strategy and must be professional and courteous to the court and other parties. They also must be treated respectfully by their clients because they are not allowed to represent clients with whom they cannot work or who do not trust them.
- Confidentiality - The right to confidentiality from your prospective lawyer, the lawyer you hire, and people who work for your lawyer, both during and after the engagement.
Attorney-client confidentiality is one of the most sacred doctrines in the law. It allows you to tell your lawyer everything that is relevant information with the understanding that it will be kept in the strictest confidence. Without it, you might be reluctant to divulge critical information, thereby limiting her ability to represent you effectively. You also need to be able to shop for the right lawyer, and that means talking about your case openly. That is why your discussions with the lawyers you interview are also confidential. HOWEVER, the attorney-client privilege only covers certain types of communications and can be lost under certain circumstances. Your lawyer knows the rules that need to be followed.
- Information Access - The right to have access to sufficient information to allow you to participate meaningfully in your matter, including access to all materials provided to your lawyer or prepared by your lawyer, during and after the representation.
Everything that happens in your case could affect the outcome. Therefore, your lawyer should provide you with all memos and court filings in your case. It simply is not possible for you to take an active role in her representation of you unless you are fully informed.
- Dismissal - The right to fire your lawyer for any reason at any time even if he or she was hired on a contingency fee basis, and to hire a new one or go it alone.
Clients often feel restrained from firing their lawyers and taking their legal business elsewhere, even after lawyers have failed to meet the clients' most basic needs. The Client Bill of Rights is intended to help you and your lawyer get along, but when things don’t go well, and the relationship with your lawyer is beyond repair, you should feel free to fire your lawyer. (Court approval might be required in certain instances and you may have to pay for the services your lawyer has already provided.) If you believe your lawyer has behaved unethically, you may want to contact the Office of Bar Counsel in your state.
The following rights are not guaranteed, but you might want to ask your lawyer to agree to them:
- Representation Agreement - The right to receive a written engagement agreement outlining the scope and objectives of the representation, the likelihood of success, and the risks involved.
It is customary in most professions, especially when a lot of money is involved, that a client be provided up front with a written estimate detailing the nature of the services to be performed and explaining all potential risks. It’s difficult to make a decision as to whether to pursue a legal matter without fully understanding how that matter is likely to proceed. After all, if you expect an electrician to give you a detailed estimate before doing any work on your house, shouldn’t you demand at least as much from your lawyer?
- Fee Agreement - The right to have a written fee agreement describing how fees and expenses will be computed, as well as the terms of payment.
Any smart lawyer would advise her client to get any business agreement in writing. Written agreements allow the parties to the agreement easy reference to the terms of their contract and are easier to enforce in court. It is sound legal advice and yet, shockingly, when it comes to fee agreements clients make with their own lawyers, an expensive representation can sometimes rest on a few spoken words and a handshake. You wouldn’t (we hope) buy a car or conduct major home improvements without a written statement containing a precise description of how much you will pay and what will be provided to you. In this respect, a contract for legal services is like any other: you should be able to easily understand it and it absolutely should be in writing. You may also want to include a statement in this agreement that any disputes over fees will be settled by arbitration before a neutral third party.
- Itemized Bills - The right to receive itemized bills on a regular basis describing the specific tasks performed, the name and title of the person who performed them, and, if you are being billed by the hour, the hourly rate and time spent by each person on each task.
It is rare these days for almost any service provider not to send customers a regular itemized bill. From your cell phone provider, to your cable company, to your local auto mechanic--you expect to receive a regular itemized bill describing the services performed. Without such information, it is impossible not only for you to know what services are being performed, who performed them, and at what cost, but also for you to challenge your bill if you feel you’ve been incorrectly charged for services.
- Lawyer Background - The right to be informed of the education, training, and relevant experience that each lawyer working on your case has.
Choosing a lawyer can be a daunting proposition for most people. That is why it is essential that lawyers be as forthcoming as possible about who they are, where they went to school, where they are admitted to practice law, and their experience with the kind of cases for which the client is considering using them. You should also find out if your lawyer has ever been disciplined for ethics violations. (You can usually get this information from the state bar association.) A lawyer’s background, especially her experience in similar matters, is essential information when you are deciding what lawyer to hire.