In this post, we’re going to talk about the most common problems in an attorney-client relationship. However, before we begin this discussion, it’s important to first explain why understanding these issues is crucial to your success as a lawyer.
There are two separate areas of importance. The first area is keeping clients happy. It’s no secret that happy clients will either continue to use your services or make referrals to your office. It’s much easier to continue a good relationship with an existing or former client than it is to acquire a new client. It’s also less expensive. Happy clients are a cost-effective way to grow your business.
The second area of importance is the main subject of this blog: ethics complaints. A bad attorney-client relationship may result in an ethics complaint filed against you. Complaints filed with the bar are taken seriously. Sometimes, they’re quickly closed out because there’s no true basis to the allegation made. However, if an investigation is launched (and it happens more often than you think), you could face sanctions, suspension, or even disbarment. An easy way to protect yourself from substantive complaints is to avoid or remedy common problems in the attorney-client relationship.
Now that you understand the purpose of the post, let’s look at the 5 most common problems in the attorney-client relationship. These aren’t listed in any particular order.
You’re Not Sure Who the Actual Client Is
There are certain areas of law that might involve some third-party individuals or businesses that pay you to handle a problem that they are involved in, but you don’t actually represent them in the matter. For example, in civil litigation involving car insurance, the insurance company uses a specific lawyer to represent their insured during the trial. While the insurance company pays the bill, they’re not the client. The third-party shouldn’t be included in privileged communication although they’re responsible for the bill.
It’s important that you’re clear about the identity of your client so that you may protect the attorney-client relationship.
You’re Making Decisions That Are the Responsibility of the Client
In the attorney-client relationship, proper allocation of authority is crucial. It is your job to meet the “objectives of the representation,” but the client is in charge of making certain decisions. One of those decisions is determining what they want to accomplish. Of course, it’s up to you to educate them and provide them with counsel. Ultimately, though, they make the decision on what they want to do in the case. If they don’t ever want to settle and they want to litigate, you’re under an ethical obligation to do that.
The other major decision that belongs to the client is whether they want to offer to settle, accept a settlement offer, negotiate an offer, or reject a settlement offer. You cannot make, negotiate, accept, or reject an offer without the client’s permission. Again, though, it is important that you counsel the client.
You’re Not Sending Out Invoices on a Regular Basis
No one likes getting a surprise invoice or for their services to suddenly stop because there’s no money in their account. Invoicing on a regular basis is important. It helps keep clients happy because they know where their retainer money stands. If you don’t believe that they’ll have enough money to close out the matter or continue the matter, pick up the phone and give them a call. If you use practice management software that has secured messaging, send them a message. The goal is to let them know where their account stands and ask what they’d like to do.
You’re Not Providing Regular Updates
The matter in front of you may not feel like anything more than just another day in the office with routine actions and pleadings, but it can much more to your client, particularly if they are inexperienced. One of the most common attorney-client relationship problems happens when a lawyer doesn’t send out regular updates about what’s happening. Settle on an update schedule and adhere to it. Also, remember that regular invoicing is another way you can update clients on their matter. When you provide enough detail for you clients, they know how their money is used and what’s happening in their case.
You’re Not Promptly Returning Phone Calls and Emails from Clients
One of the most common reasons that bar complaints are filed stem from this common attorney-client relationship problem: you’re not returning phone calls or replying to emails from clients. Lack of communication is a serious issue for clients. This is an attorney-client relationship problem that is fully within your control.
Were You Notified of an Ethics Complaint Filed Against You?
If you received a letter from the state bar informing you that an ethics complaint was filed against you, it’s important that you know what to do. Check out our 8 must take steps for lawyers and check out statebarplaybook.com. An ethics complaint can ruin your practice. Learn how to protect yourself and get help from an experienced ethics defense lawyer.