Clients put a great deal of faith in their lawyers. As with doctors, clients come to attorneys for serious problems—problems that they cannot solve on their own, thus putting them in a potentially vulnerable position. What rights do you have when engaging the services of attorneys?
Attorneys are licensed by their state’s bar association and are obligated to follow their state’s rules of professional conduct. All states have long codes of professional conduct (for example, see Hawaii’s Rules of Professional Conduct). Some states also have more consumer-friendly lists of “rights” for clients, like New York’s Statement of Clients’ Rights.
While each state’s rules vary slightly, they are all based on the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which spell out the ethical and practical standards by which attorneys must abide.
As a client, you should be aware of the minimum obligations that your attorney must uphold under these Model Rules:
1. Courteous and respectful treatment. You are entitled to be treated with courtesy and respect by your attorney and all personnel in the attorney's office. The lawyer cannot simply go off and handle your case as he or she sees fit, but must consult with you about how to best accomplish your objectives.
2. Full fee disclosure. You are entitled to be fully informed as to the attorney's fees, so that you’re not surprised upon receiving your bill. Every lawyer handles fee arrangements differently. Many do not charge for an initial consultation, while others charge for it (if it's a flat fee, expect anywhere from $50 to $250). Some may charge a flat fee for handling the entire case, if it's a routine legal matter, such as a simple will, an uncontested divorce, or a marriage-based green card application. Some attorneys may charge hourly fees, the amount of which can vary depending upon the attorney's experience and expertise in a particular area of law. Some charge what are called "contingent fees," which means the attorney will get a percentage of any recovery the client receives (and nothing if the client's case is lost, except for expenses such as court filing fees, costs of deposing (interviewing) witnesses, and so on). Some attorneys require large up-front retainer deposits, while others do not. Your attorney is obligated charge reasonable fees and to clearly communicate the fee structure with you before commencing representation.
3. Competence. You are entitled to competent representation by the attorney. Competency requires both intelligence and experience on the part of the attorney. There are ethical rules that prohibit an attorney from taking a case that is frivolous (lacks merit) or is intended to harass another person. Attorneys should also refrain from taking a case in a complex area of law about which they know very little. An attorney cannot lie to you and claim to be an expert in a complex personal taxation issue, when in fact he or she has never dealt with such issues.
4. Confidentiality. You are entitled to complete confidentiality of any matter when you are a client of an attorney. The attorney-client privilege means that generally the attorney (and all personnel in the attorney's office) can't reveal confidential information the client conveys to the attorney in the course of representation or when seeking representation.
5. Representation free from conflicts of interest. You are entitled to the attorney’s loyalty. The attorney can't represent you if that representation conflicts with the attorney's representation of other clients. For example, if you want to sue your neighbor, but an attorney also represents your neighbor’s business, the attorney cannot simultaneously represent you in your lawsuit. Professional responsibility rules prohibit simultaneous representation of clients with directly conflicting interests.
6. Regular updates and prompt attention. You are entitled to regular updates on the status of the legal matter. The attorney should promptly respond to your questions and phone calls. Indeed, one of the most common complaints clients have is that their lawyers do not regularly or thoroughly communicate with them to provide news and updates on the state of their legal matter.
7. Holding and accounting of client funds. You are entitled to an accounting of all funds held by the attorney, including your retainer, if any. The attorney must keep client money and escrow funds in a separate attorney trust account, and can't use the funds without your property. The attorney is obligated to promptly return any money or property to you if the attorney is dismissed from the case or if the case ends.
8. Accountability for misconduct. You have the right to file a complaint with the state bar association for alleged attorney misconduct. Don't expect immediate action, however. According to a 2010 ABA study, the average time between a client filing a complaint and the state bar association filing formal charges is between three months (in North Dakota) and 638 days (in Virginia).
Your lawyer has not only studied these rules, but had to pass a separate portion of the bar exam covering them. Nevertheless, it's possible you may, in certain circumstances, have to remind your lawyer about the rules, or proactively inquire about issues such as a potential conflict of interest.