Insist on good communication from attorney
Attorneys are expected to keep their clients’ secrets; at the same time, attorneys also are expected to not keep secrets from their clients.
One of the most fundamental elements of any successful relationship is communication. If we fail to communicate with our spouse, friend, or coworker; if we make unilateral decisions; if we fail to respond; and if we ignore their opinions, then oftentimes those relationships suffer. The attorney-client relationship is no different, except that the attorney has an ethical duty to communicate with the client.
So, what should a client expect their attorney to keep them informed of? The simple answer is “everything important.”
The attorney must keep the client reasonably informed about the status of their case. This means that the attorney should notify the client within a reasonable time of significant developments that affect the case in any relevant way. The client should never have to call the attorney to find out whether there are any updates to the case.
If the attorney regularly informs the client of the major developments in their case, the client’s need to inquire with the attorney is reduced. However, the client should not be dissuaded from making inquiries and, when so made, the attorney has a duty to promptly comply with the client’s reasonable requests for information. The attorney should always acknowledge the client’s requests and, if the attorney is unable to promptly answer, the attorney should notify the client when the response is anticipated.
The attorney must consult with the client and obtain the client’s consent prior to taking certain actions unless the client has previously provided the attorney with the authority to act in a certain way. So, if the decision or situation requires the client’s consent, the attorney must promptly notify the client. For example, the attorney must always notify the client of a settlement offer in a civil case or a plea bargain in a criminal case.
It also is the attorney’s duty to explain a matter to the client to the extent that the client is able to make informed decisions regarding the case. If the client is able and willing to participate in decisions regarding their representation, then that client should be provided with sufficient information to make intelligent choices regarding the goals and methods of that representation. It does not mean that the attorney has to explain every detail of the representation to the client. However, the client should know and understand all main parts of the representation process, overall strategy, the chances of success, the methods and tactics to be used, and the potential for any significant expense or harm to others. The information relayed to the client should be appropriately tailored to the client’s needs and abilities. For example, a young child or an adult with diminished capacity might not be able to understand the same level of detail regarding their representation as a comprehending adult.
On the same note, the attorney must reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished. Sometimes it means consulting with the client prior to taking any action. Other times, in the midst of a trial, for example, consulting with the client prior to taking action might not be possible and the attorney must inform and explain to the client an action taken when reasonably possible. The attorney may never withhold information to serve the attorney’s own interest.
Lastly, the attorney must explain to the client any relevant limitation on the attorney’s ability to act when the attorney knows that the client expects conduct not permitted by the law.
In sum, you should expect good communication from your attorney. You should expect your attorney to keep you informed, consult with you, and respond in a timely manner.
Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney practicing estate planning, family law, and workers’ compensation.