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Your Lawyer: A User's Guide

by Lawrence J. Fox and Susan R. Martyn
As our fee discussion demonstrates, this is your lawyer's first obligation to you. You must be kept informed, so that your lawyer will represent your best interests as you define them. There is a fundamental obligation your lawyer undertakes that starts before the representation begins. Your lawyer must communicate with you about the scope of the representation, whether he has any possible conflicts of interest, how he expects to be paid, and any information you need to know to decide whether to hire him.

Sure. They communicate real well when they're trying to impress a new client. But I wonder how long that devotion lasts?

Now, we won't deceive you; sometimes lawyers will shirk this responsibility. Sometimes it's because they're too busy, sometimes it's because they forget, sometimes, and we hate to admit this, it's because they find you to be a pain. But the reality does not change the obligation. You are entitled to two levels of communication.

First, you are entitled to periodic reports. Even if nothing is happening, from time to time you should hear from your lawyer. Second, if anything important happens, your lawyer should notify you immediately.

Yeah, but the lawyer gets to decide what's important.

Not really. Your lawyer's obligation is to keep you advised of all material developments. It's what you, the client, would think is important.

So the lawyer tells me about "developments." Then the lawyer can go on his merry way. May as well not bother.

That's not correct at all. From the very beginning of the representation the lawyer must not only communicate with you, but secure your input.

How do you mean?

You come to a lawyer. You have a problem. You have a dream. You talk with your lawyer, tell him about your hopes and fears and then, after he lays out the possibilities, it is you - not your lawyer - who gets to decide what the scope of the representation should be. We say the client gets to decide the objectives and then it's the lawyer's job to carry them out.

So I can come to a lawyer and say I'll hire you for one hour, so that I don't end up paying an arm and a leg?

Well, not quite. Lawyers can be hired for small matters or even to advise on a part of a matter. What we are not allowed to do is agree to a limitation in a representation that creates a restriction on meaningful legal services. Say you have a tax problem and to give good advice would take 10 hours. A lawyer cannot agree to provide one hour of services. But if you want to have a lawyer evaluate a proposed property settlement in a no-fault divorce, without addressing issues relating to child visitation, a lawyer can agree to that limitation.

Chapter 5: Your Lawyer Must Be Competent and Diligent »