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CLIENT CARE GUIDE: Communicating Well with your Lawyer

Effective communication between you and your attorney can be crucial to the successful outcome of your legal matter. This information is designed to help you better understand the process of working with an attorney and how you can best work together to handle your legal matter. Attorneys are happy to serve you and give you a strong voice in the legal system.

The First Meeting

One of the best ways to have a successful first in-person or telephonic meeting with your attorney is to be prepared. Before your initial meeting, gather and organize all important documents that pertain to the matter you will discuss. This simple step can save you time and money and will help your lawyer better understand your situation.

Be prepared to discuss with your attorney what it is you wish to accomplish so that he or she can assess the chances of successfully accomplishing your goals. With only a few exceptions, your lawyer has an ethical obligation not to disclose information you discuss. That means that, except in extreme circumstances, your lawyer will not talk about your matter with anyone else without your permission.

It is best to be prepared to answer detailed questions regarding your legal matter. Accurate details and truthful answers will ensure that your attorney can give you the most effective assistance. You will also want to make sure you leave your first attorney-client meeting with answers to important questions. The list below is a helpful start.

Questions You May Want to Ask Your Lawyer

What is your experience in this area of practice?

What are your rates and how will the billing be handled?

What is the estimated total expense for costs and fees of my case?

What can I do to keep the costs and fees down?

What are my alternatives in resolving this matter?

How will you keep me informed of progress and how often will I hear from you?

What documentation do you need from me?

Approximately how long will it take to resolve my case?

CLIENT RIGHTS - You should expect your lawyer to:

Represent you diligently and ethically.

Be capable of handling your case. You are encouraged to ask about the lawyer’s education, training and experience before hiring him or her. The lawyer will inform you periodically about the status of your case and give you copies, if you request, of legal documents prepared on your behalf.

Charge you a reasonable fee and tell you in writing the basis for that fee.

Provide an estimate of the total costs of the representation as well as the scope of the representation. You should inquire as to the potential costs if your case is lost. Ask for a written explanation of the fees and costs incurred.

Keep confidential almost all statements and information that you reveal in the course of your relationship. Rare exceptions include subjects such as intent to commit a crime.

Give you the right to make the ultimate decisions on the legitimate objectives to be pursued in your case, including deciding whether to settle your case.

Show you courtesy and respect.

Exercise independent professional judgment on your behalf, free from compromising influence.

Keep you informed about the status of your legal matter, responding promptly to reasonable requests for information.

Provide you with a complete copy of your file, if it has not been provided to you during representation, or if the lawyer needs to end the representation.

YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES - Your lawyer will expect you to:

Give him or her a truthful and candid recitation of the facts surrounding your case. A lawyer can only help a client when there has been full disclosure. Promptly notify the lawyer of changed circumstances.

Give him or her prompt responses to reasonable and necessary requests.

Set appointments in advance.

Be on time for all meetings and legal proceedings.

Treat the lawyer and the law office staff with courtesy and respect.

Communicate in a timely manner with the lawyer if you are unhappy regarding the representation and the reasons why.

Refrain from asking the lawyer to engage in behavior that is inappropriate, unethical, unprofessional or illegal.

Pay the agreed-upon lawyer’s fee in a prompt manner. If unforeseen circumstances arise concerning payment, inform the lawyer of the reasons for nonpayment. If any billing entries are in question, you should give immediate notice to the lawyer.

Immediately notify your lawyer if you change your address or phone number.

Legal Fees and Costs

When you are talking about legal services, there is a difference between “fees” and “costs.”

Feesrefer only to the money you pay to the lawyer for the time spent by members of the legal team working on your case. There are many ways to pay for professional legal services. Following is an explanation of the most common methods:

Hourly Rate

The lawyer charges a set amount per hour for the time spent working on the legal issue.

  • Most lawyers round off their work to the nearest tenth or quarter of an hour.

  • Some members of the legal team who have less training and experience than your lawyer generally bill at a lower hourly rate.

  • Ask your lawyer to tell you everyone who is likely to work on your legal matter and their hourly rate.

Contingency Fee

The lawyer agrees to take a specific percentage of he money you receive if you win the case or settle the matter out of court.

  • If the lawyer does not collect any money, the client may not have to pay the lawyer for the time spent working on the case. You will, however, still be responsible to pay all costs and expenses incurred during your case.

  • This type of fee is often used in personal injury cases or other cases when you are suing to collect money from the person or entity responsible for injury or damage.

  • Contingency fees cannot be charged in criminal cases, child custody matters or dissolutions.

Flat Fee

The lawyer charges a set amount to complete the legal assignment no matter how long it actually takes to do the job.

  • This fee is for routine legal matters such as the preparation of a simple will or filing a bankruptcy. When you agree to a flat fee, be sure you know what it does and does not include and if there could be additional charges.

***CAUTION: Be clear about what legal services are provided for a Flat Fee. Often, many tasks should be done, but are NOT, because a lawyer charges a flat fee rather than hourly. Or, you think the flat fee covers everything to resolve a case, but it doesn't. Get the details!

Retainer/Advance Fee

This fee can be used to guarantee that a lawyer will be available to take a particular case and could mean the lawyer would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available. A retainer fee can also mean that the lawyer is available to handle your legal issues over a specified period of time. The lawyer must tell you in writing whether it is a traditional retainer that is just paid to hire the lawyer or whether the lawyer will use it as an “advanced fee” from which he or she will deduct fees as they are earned.

Costs/Expensesare the other charges involved in the handling of your legal matter that are above and beyond the legal fees. Your lawyer should provide you a written copy of your fee agreement, which should describe the fees and costs/expenses that you may incur, and how you will be billed.

Costs vary considerably from case to case, depending on the nature of your legal matter. They could include items such as filing or recording fees, mailing and copying costs, money necessary to hire outside consultants or experts, jury and witness fees, travel, and couriers.

  • The client, not the lawyer, is usually responsible for paying most costs.

  • With contingency fee agreements the client must pay the costs out of his or her share of the money that is collected by the lawyer. Even if no money is collected, the client is still responsible to pay the costs.

  • The lawyer may advance costs for the client, who remains responsible and must pay the lawyer back. In some cases, the repayment of costs may be contingent on the outcome of the case.

  • Your lawyer should be able to give you a reasonable estimate of the type and the amount of costs that will likely be incurred in the handling of your legal matter.

  • Insist that your lawyer contact you with an explanation if there are any major changes in his or her estimate of the costs.

  • Your lawyer should also talk with you before making major cost expenditures, such as for an expert or outside consultant.

  • Let your lawyer know that you want to be kept informed about costs as they accrue, and ask your lawyer to explain options you might have for holding costs down as much as possible.

There may be other types of fee agreements or variations of the ones described here. Ask your lawyer to explain your fee agreement to make sure you understand how it works.

Ways to Reduce Costs and Fees:

  • Gather information before meeting your lawyer. Write down names, addresses and telephone numbers of all the people involved in the matter.

  • Be organized. Bring letters, documents and other important papers to your first meeting.

  • Write down questions you want your lawyer to answer.

  • Keep your lawyer informed, but don’t make unnecessary calls about minor details. If you are being charged an hourly rate, it is likely you are being charged for your call.

  • Be on time for appointments.

  • Ask if you can reduce costs by obtaining documents, contacting witnesses or providing other assistance.

  • Keep track of all papers sent to you by your lawyer, including receipts for cash payments and monthly billing statements.

Who’s Who in a Law Office

Lawyers depend on a number of legal professionals to assist with handling your legal matter. That team could include:

• Paralegals

• Secretaries

• Nurse consultants

• Receptionists

• Legal clerks

• Other lawyers

• Office managers

• Messengers

Like your lawyer, these people are required to keep information about your legal matter confidential. Check with your lawyer to determine whom you should contact for information about the status of your legal matter. Remember, only a lawyer is ethically permitted to give you legal advice. Your lawyer is still ultimately responsible for every aspect of your legal matter and must supervise the work of other team members.

© 2009 Gervase Law Firm PLLC. All Rights Reserved.

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