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#125 How to work effectively with your lawyer

mp3 #125 How to Work Effectively with Your Lawyer (mp3 file)

This message will discuss the following questions:

1-What will the lawyer be responsible for?

2-What will you be responsible for?

3-How will you know what your lawyer expects of you?

4-What if the lawyer won't discuss his or her policies?

5-What if you don't like how the lawyer is handling your case?

6-Can the lawyer ever "fire" you as a client?

7-What do you need to do to have a successful lawyer/client team?

This message is based on a pamphlet which is part of a series by the State Bar of California that discusses what you should expect when you hire a lawyer. Because this subject matter is so broad, it also includes other topics: " how can you find and hire the right lawyer?", "what can a legal fee agreement for you?", and "what happens when the attorney/client relationship ends?" You can obtain copies of these pamphlets from the State Bar of California by calling the consumer education pamphlet hotline at 888-875-LAWS.

Many people think that once they have hired a lawyer, the lawyer will do everything necessary to handle their legal matter. In reality, hiring a lawyer is just the first step in creating a team. Sometimes your legal team will consist of just you and the lawyer.

Sometimes the team will include others such as legal assistants, accountants, consulting experts, court reporters and the like. But no matter how many people are on the team, each one, including you, has certain responsibilities to fulfill in order to ensure that the legal matter will be handled as smoothly and successfully as possible. The purpose of this message is to explain how you, as a client, can work with your legal team in the most successful way possible.

First, what will the lawyer be responsible for?

The lawyer expects to use his or her specialized legal knowledge and skill to advise you on the different courses of action available to you, and the possible consequences of each course of action, so that you can make the best decisions about how your case or legal matter should proceed. The lawyer does not expect to make major decisions about your matter - that is your responsibility! Say, for example, that you were involved in an auto accident and that the other party has made a settlement offer. It is for you to decide whether to accept that offer or have your case proceed to trial.

In some instances the lawyer will expect to use his or her judgment about what to do and will not necessarily ask you for input or advice. Say, for example, that you decided to take your accident case to trial. The lawyer will probably decide about how to question the various witnesses and how to introduce items of evidence, without consulting with you.

Next, what will you be responsible for?

Your lawyer will expect you to be truthful and complete about the facts of your situation. Holding back information can prevent the lawyer from giving you the best advice.

Your lawyer may also ask you to assist by locating documents and people that are important to your case. And, of course, any other assistance you can provide such as word processing, organizing documents, and other similar services, will reduce the fees and costs that you would otherwise have to pay the lawyer.

Your lawyer will want to know how to maintain regular contact with you. You would be surprised by the number of clients who move or change telephone numbers and forgets to tell their lawyers.

Your lawyer will expect you to make reasonable adjustments to your schedule, to meet with the lawyer or attend legal proceedings, such as depositions and trials, as necessary.

Your lawyer will expect you to pay your bills promptly, both for legal fees and for costs.

Of course, this list is not complete and your job on your legal team will depend on the nature of your legal matter, and the expectations of your particular lawyer.

Next, how will you know what your lawyer expects of you?

At one of your first meetings with your lawyer, plan to discuss and reach an agreement about the following:

-Your goals and what you want accomplished.

-What the lawyer expects to do to help you achieve your goals.

-How fees and costs will be charged, and how you will be expected to pay for them. 

-How the lawyer will keep you informed about the status of your case --- whether by regular telephone calls or meetings or letters.

-Who else in the lawyer's office will be involved with your case - other lawyers, paralegals, legal assistants and secretaries?

In order for a busy law office to work effectively, lawyers rely upon other office staff for assistance. This office staff will keep information about your case confidential and, by using such staff; a lawyer can help keep your costs down.

-How the lawyer wants you to keep the office informed about developments in your case - by telephone, in person or in writing.

-What is the office policy about returning your telephone calls and letter, and how will you be charged for these services? Each lawyer has different policies and practices about responding to client inquiries. Some lawyers return some or all client calls personally, while others may have a staff member, such as a legal assistant or secretary do so. Some lawyers charge a minimum fee for returning calls, while others do not charge their clients. You should be certain that you understand what your lawyer's policies are, and what you are comfortable with.

Next, what if the lawyer won't discuss his or her policies? It is probably a good idea to interview at least three lawyers before making a decision on who to hire. Don't hire a lawyer who will not discuss how he or she works or one who expects to handle your matter in a way that you are uncomfortable with. But if several lawyers tell you the same things, chances are that you may have to adjust your expectations.

Once you have hired a lawyer to work on a legal matter for you, you are entitled to be kept informed about what is going on. You have the right to information about the. Work that is being done, and the progress of your matter. Remember, though, that the lawyer has the right to charge for the time spent in keeping you informed about the status of your case.

If the lawyer cannot answer your questions about such matters, or you and the lawyer cannot come to a mutually satisfactory agreement about what to do, you should seriously consider finding a different lawyer. Often it is better to think about doing this while it is still early in your case, before you and the lawyer have invested a lot of time and money on your matter.

Next, what if you don't like how the lawyer is handling your case?

If you begin to disagree with the way the lawyer is handling your case, the first thing to do is to speak directly with your lawyer. Explain your concerns, and listen to the lawyer’s explanations. Keep in mind that no lawyer can guarantee a particular result and that your lawyer’s assessment of your matter can and will change over time, with further research and investigation.

If the lawyer's explanations do not satisfy you, you may want to consider a "second opinion" from another lawyer. Then, you can decide whether you want to have your original lawyer continue to represent you.

If your lawyer refuses to discuss your concerns with you, or you continue to be dissatisfied with the way the lawyer is handling your matter, you have the right to discharge that lawyer and hire a new one. You will be responsible for all fees and costs up to the date of discharge. In certain types of cases, such as contingent fee cases, the lawyer may take a lien for fees against a future settlement or judgment.

Next, can the lawyer ever "fire" you as a client?

A lawyer also has the right to terminate the attorney-client relationship. However, the lawyer is under a professional obligation to withdraw without prejudicing the client's case. That means that before withdrawing from the case, the lawyer needs to give the client due notice, an opportunity to find new counsel, promptly return all client papers and property, refund any unearned advance fees, and comply with applicable laws and rules. In cases involving court action, the lawyer will have to obtain permission from the court before withdrawing from the case. In most civil cases, if the client consents to the lawyer withdrawing, this can be achieved by filing a simple one-page document, commonly referred to as a substitution of attorney form, with the court. Otherwise, the lawyer can withdraw only with a court order.

A lawyer may try to withdraw from a case if the lawyer and client do not get along, or if the client fails to pay fees, or if the client wants the lawyer to do something that is unethical or illegal. The lawyer must withdraw from a case if the lawyer knows that the client is harassing or maliciously injuring any person, or if the lawyer is unable to effectively represent the client due to a mental or physical condition.

Next, what do you need to do to have a successful lawyer/client team?

The answer to this question is simple and straightforward:

-be sure that you and your lawyer have the same goals.

-be sure that you understand and are comfortable with the lawyer’s working style. Be especially certain that you have a clear picture of the expected timetable of your care - when you can expect significant developments, and when and how often the lawyer intends to contact you.

-be sure that you provide the lawyer with the information and documents necessary to understand your case.

-be sure you understand and agree with the lawyer's billing practices.

-be sure that if you have questions or concerns about your legal matter, you express them to the lawyer and listen to the responses.

By following these simple rules, you should have a productive and positive working relationship with your lawyer.

Even by following all the rules, however, problems may still arise. Should this happen, there are sources available to help you. Many local bar associations throughout California have client relations programs, whose purpose is to help clients with non- responsive lawyers, and many local bar associations also have fee arbitration programs to help clients resolve fee disputes with their lawyers. In addition, you have the right to complain about your lawyer to the state bar itself at area code 800-843-9053.

The purpose of this message is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. If you have a specific legal problem, you may want to consult a lawyer.

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