How are Tasks Divided between the Lawyer and the Client?

Rules of professional conduct and ethics govern how tasks are to be divided between the lawyer and client. States may also have their own laws regarding the division of tasks, which are normally entitled “Allocation of Authority between Lawyer and Client”.

As a general rule, it is the client’s job to make the major decisions in their case. The lawyer is required to abide by these decisions according to the client’s desires.

The lawyer’s job is therefore to select the means to complete the client’s goals. They are responsible for tasks involving legal procedures, strategies and court tactics. Even still, the lawyer is required to consult with the client about the course of action to be taken according to the law.

This means that you and your lawyer will need to cooperate thoroughly and communicate very clearly regarding what you wish to achieve in court. That way, your lawyer will know which actions to take for your particular circumstances.

What Tasks is my Lawyer Responsible For?

Your lawyer is responsible for making decisions regarding legal procedures and legal strategies. The lawyer’s tasks mainly deal with technical, legal, and tactical matters, since the client is not expected to know the ins and outs of court procedures.

For example, lawyers are responsible for the following tasks:

Procedural Issues:

  • Ensuring that the claim is filed within the deadlines known as the statute of limitations
  • Selecting venue (the location where the case will be heard)
  • Filing the appropriate papers with the court
  • Responding to any court papers filed by the other party such as requests for documents

Strategic Matters:

  • Investigating the case through discovery (obtaining information from the other party)
  • Speaking for the client in court
  • Selecting a jury
  • Handling trial
  • Appealing your case
  • Recommending courses of action the client should take at all stages of the case
  • Regularly communicating with the client to provide updates

There is not really a “bright line” dividing rule between what is considered to be a strategic task or a substantive issue. Make sure to consult with your lawyer regarding any major changes or revisions to your case.

Which Tasks am I Responsible For?

You are responsible for making all the substantive decisions of your case, including:

  • What type of claim to file
  • Whether to pursue a lawsuit or settle the legal matter out of court (you still may need a lawyer to represent you in out-of-court settlements)
  • Criminal cases:
    • What type of plea you will be entering, i.e., guilty, not guilty, no contest, etc.
    • Whether to request or waive a jury trial
    • Whether or not you will testify at trial

You should inform your lawyer of the main direction in which you want your case to proceed. They will respond accordingly with suggestions as to how to achieve the overall aim of your legal claim. In other words, your attorney needs your permission before acting in substantive matters.

Feel free to ask your attorney about the various ways in which your case can be argued and if there are any exceptional alternatives which may be appropriate for your case.

So, while you’re not expected to have even a basic understanding of how the law works, you should have a good idea of what you expect to get out of trial. For example, you should have an idea of how much monetary compensation you might be asking for or what types of relief you need. This makes it easier to tell if you have an actual case or if the lawsuit is “frivolous” (too trivial to be heard in court).

What Happens if I Disagree with my Attorney over our Tasks and Responsibilities?

It is the lawyer’s job to abide by the decisions of the client. However, lawyer ethical rules state that the lawyer may limit the scope of representation only if such alterations are reasonable and the client gives informed consent. A client may elect to fire their attorney at any time, though this might not always be a practical option if trial is already underway.

A good example of a typical dispute between a lawyer and client is the decision whether to file an actual lawsuit or to settle out of court. As mentioned, it’s the client’s decision whether to pursue a trial or to settle. However, it is also the lawyer’s responsibility not to file a lawsuit that is frivolous or lacking merit. In this situation, the lawyer and client would need to discuss whether the lawsuit has the proper basis to be filed in court.

The client cannot request the lawyer to do anything illegal, and vice versa. On the other hand, you should expect your lawyer to discuss all the possible legal consequences of any proposed course of legal action. Your lawyer might instruct you to make a good faith effort to determine the scope, meaning, application, or validity of any given law.

How Important is Communication when it comes to Dividing Tasks?

Communication is key when it comes to dividing tasks between you and the lawyer. In general, your lawyer should consult with you on every major decision before they return a response to the judge. It’s always best if both you and your lawyer are in agreement on a decision.

If you both are attempting to accomplish different objectives, it will seriously affect your case. The best way to avoid such conflicts is to communicate clearly and frequently.

Thus a main role of the lawyer is to arrive at a balance between the client’s particular needs and the requirements and limitations imposed by the law. The lawyer is basically a mediator between the client on the one hand and the legal system on the other (including the court, judges, and opposing lawyers). You can think of your lawyer as a sort of translator or interpreter for their clients, since laws can sometimes be complex and difficult to understand. However, it’s up to you to make major decisions in light of what the law says.