How to Talk to Your Lawyer
Candid and timely communication between you and your lawyer is essential for effective representation and 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 a lawyer so you can best work together to understand and resolve your legal issues. Effective communication between you and your lawyer will give you a strong voice in the legal system.
The First Meeting
The best way to have a successful first meeting with your lawyer is to be prepared. Before your initial appointment, gather and organize all documents and materials that may pertain to the matter and bring them with you, whether or not you think they may be "important." This simple step can save you time and money and will help your lawyer better understand your situation, including the possible strengths and weaknesses of your matter.
Be prepared to discuss with your lawyer what you wish to accomplish so that your lawyer can assess the chances of successfully accomplishing your goals.
Be prepared to answer detailed questions about your legal matter. Accurate details and truthful answers, even if you believe the information may hurt your case or could be embarrassing, will ensure that your lawyer can give you the most effective assistance. Surprises can strain the lawyer-client relationship and harm your case.
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. If you know that your lawyer will need to discuss your matter with others, give your lawyer permission to do so.
You also will want to make sure you leave your first lawyer-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?
- How many cases like mine have you handled?
- Who else will be working on my case and how will you assign tasks?
- What are your rates and how will the billing be handled?
- What is the estimated total expense for costs and fees in my case?
- How can we keep the costs and fees down?
- What are my alternatives for resolving this matter?
- How will you keep me informed of developments, and how often will I hear from you?
- Who else in your office can I contact about my case?
- What documentation do you need from me?
- About how long will it take to resolve my case?
Client Rights and Responsibilities
You should expect your lawyer to:
- Represent you diligently.
- 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 will 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 you with a copy of your written fee agreement, and in that fee agreement set forth the amount of the fee(s) agreed to, an explanation of costs and expenses that will be your responsibility, and an explanation of how the costs and fee(s) incurred are expected to be paid by you.
- Provide an estimate of the total costs of the representation as well as the scope of the representation, or explain to you why estimating the total costs of the representation will be merely a guess, at best.
- Tell you whether you will need to pay any costs or fees if you lose your case.
- 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. The underlying facts of a matter and documents, however, do not become privileged just because you discuss them with your lawyer. It is the advice and communication between you and your lawyer that is confidential.
- 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 outside influence.
- Keep you informed about the status of your legal matter, responding promptly to your 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 should need to end the representation.
Your lawyer will expect you to:
- Provide a truthful and candid recitation of the facts surrounding your case and provide all materials and documents that may pertain to your case. A lawyer can only effectively help a client when there has been full disclosure. Promptly notify the lawyer of changed circumstances.
- Promptly respond to your lawyer's requests for information.
- Understand that your lawyer has other clients and that other clients are equally deserving of the lawyer's time and efforts.
- Set appointments in advance rather than show up at the office and expect to be seen.
- 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 explain the reasons why you are unhappy.
- 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 you question any billing entries, you should let the lawyer know immediately.
- Notify your lawyer right away if you change your address, phone number, or other contact information.
Legal Fees and Costs
When you are talking about legal services, you need to understand the difference between "fees" and "costs."
Legal Fees refer only to the money you pay to the lawyer for the time spent by members of the legal team working on your case.
Costs/Expenses are the other charges involved in the handling of your legal matter that you will be required to pay to your lawyer in addition to legal fees. Your lawyer must give you, in writing, an explanation of the costs/expenses that you may incur. This written explanation may include other information, such as how you will be billed.
There are a variety of ways a lawyer charges for professional legal services. Frequently a lawyer will ask you to pay before the work is done. Sometimes the lawyer considers this payment to have already been earned when you pay it. Sometimes the lawyer will hold the money in a special bank account ("trust account") until the lawyer performs the work. The lawyer must tell you whether he or she considers the money to have been earned on receipt. The ways a lawyer charges for services include:
- 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.
- Members of the legal team who have less training and experience than your lawyer will generally bill at a lower hourly rate.
- Your lawyer should tell you everyone who is likely to work on your legal matter and their hourly rate.
The lawyer agrees to take a specific percentage of the 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 may, however, still be responsible for paying 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.
The lawyer charges a set amount to complete the legal assignment no matter how long it actually takes to do the job.
- This type of fee often is for routine legal matters such as preparing a simple will or filing a bankruptcy. When you agree to pay a flat fee, be sure you know what it does and does not include and if there could be additional charges.
A retainer 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. Lawyers are unlikely to charge true "retainer fees" in most cases, but often require the payment of "advanced fees" to be held in a special trust account and billed against as they perform work while representing you.
The lawyer and the client agree that the lawyer will perform a specific and discrete task. Customarily, these representations require a much smaller upfront fee, as the lawyer may not be required to appear formally on behalf of the client or may do so only on a limited basis.
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:
- Nurse consultants
- Legal clerks
- Other lawyers
- Office managers
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 that 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.
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, fax and long distance charges, fees necessary to hire outside consultants or experts, jury and witness fees, travel, electronic legal research charges, and couriers.
- The client, not the lawyer, is typically responsible for paying most costs.
- The lawyer may advance costs for the client but usually expects the client to pay the lawyer back for those costs.
- Your lawyer should be able to give you a reasonable estimate of the type and amount of costs that will likely be incurred in the handling of your legal matter.
- Request that your lawyer contact you with an explanation if there are any major changes in his or her estimate of the costs or time to be spent handling your matter.
- Your lawyer should also talk with you before making major expenditures, such as for an expert witness or outside consultant.
- Let your lawyer know that you want to be kept informed about costs as they accrue.
- 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 papers that may pertain to your matter to your first meeting.
- Write down questions you want your lawyer to answer. (The "Questions You May Want to Ask Your Lawyer" appearing in this brochure will be helpful.)
- Keep your lawyer informed, but don't make unnecessary calls about minor details. If you are being charged an hourly rate, you are most likely being charged for your call.
- Be on time for appointments and court proceedings.
- 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 monthly billing statements and receipts for cash payments.
- Keep copies of any of your communications with your lawyer or others about the case.