One of the very first things that lawyers do when they start working with a new client is put together an engagement letter. It’s critically important to have written engagement terms in place, and also ethically required.
Sample engagement letters are easy to find, and they usually satisfy basic ethical requirements, but they’re often short on covering some of the practical, day-to-day issues that can have a direct impact on the overall success of the relationship.
Explicitly addressing a few additional terms the start of the engagement – adding a few “vows” – can help clarify expectations and set the relationship off to a positive start.
Today, we’ll consider 5 vows that a lawyer could elicit from a client at the start of the relationship, in addition to the “standard” engagement letter terms.
Client Vow #1: “I promise to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – and to do so before we’re in open court or signing contracts at a closing table.”
The client needs to understand the nature and scope of the attorney-client relationship and clearly understand the potential consequences of misrepresenting or withholding information from the attorney. Even innocent errors (“I didn’t know that mattered”) can be terribly damaging.
While the attorney needs to ask their clients the right questions, clients (especially those unfamiliar with the process at hand) need to appreciate the importance of providing open, complete communication to their counsel.
Client Vow #2: “I promise to respect our agreed-upon communication protocols – i.e. I won’t call you every hour, on the hour.”
The client needs to makes sure that her advocate is well-informed. However, that doesn’t translate into calling the office umpteen times a day, supplmented by hourly e-mail manifestos.
“Mr. Ptolemy called again – something about the universe revolving around him – he doesn’t understand why you can’t just call him back.”
Discussing and setting down a reasonable communication plan can not only help ensure that everyone stays informed, it can also go a long way toward minimizing everyone’s frustrations. Specifics will always vary – every lawyer has her own style, and every situation is different – but talking about this issue up front is important to properly set expectations. What constitutes an “emergency”? When can I normally expect a call back or e-mail reply? What about weekends and holidays? These are questions worthy of some up-front clarification.
Client Vow #3: “I promise that we will always treat each other, and each other’s team, respectfully.”
Law offices are not exactly life-or-death hospital trauma centers, but they are nonetheless places where several complicated, important things happen simultaneously – many of which are subject to pressing deadlines. In a small law office, someone who answers the phone (if it’s not the lawyer herself!) may be directly working on those things when a client calls, making sure everything is processed professionally and on time. If that person can’t immediately deal with your (non-urgent) issue, don’t interpret it as a sly attempt to disrespect you, or an implication that your matter isn’t important. The same applies to other clients when they call and we’re working directly on your matter. So, please, be polite. Be professional. It’s just bad practice to be rude or short with the lawyer’s team.
In addition, aside from being impolite, being snotty to an admin or paralegal is poor strategy. I distinctly remember one particularly sunny Saturday morning when I spotted an admin and a paralegal in the Firm’s office. Envisioning an exciting M&A deal, or maybe an emergency TRO in progress, I asked them what was up. “No rush”, they said, “we just know next week is going to be crazy so we wanted to finish up some stuff for [Mr. Smith] so he didn’t have to wait. He’s just such a nice man.” When it comes to people skills, your Grandma knew what she was talking about.
Client Vow #4: I promise to carefully listen to your advice and, if I’m smart, follow it.
When the lawyer takes the time to explain a strategy or a particular tactic: listen to her. Actively. Take notes. (If necessary, the lawyer will tell you how to protect those notes.) Ask questions. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the issues at hand. Ask for advice, and when your attorney gives it – think long and hard before you disregard it.
If you find yourself regularly disagreeing with the advice that your attorney is giving you, or if your attorney has proven to be neglectful or incompetent, then you need a different lawyer. Those who have gone through more than 2 or 3 lawyers might consider investing in a psychologist instead.
Remind the client that they shouldn’t go through the trouble of searching for the right lawyer, finding her, engaging her, thoroughly working on a matter together, paying her, and then ignoring or otherwise failing to follow through on her advice.
Client Vow #5: I promise to remember that you are the lawyer, and that I hired you to represent me.
A twist on “I promise to listen”, a client must clearly understand that, once engaged, the lawyer is on point. The lawyer has the requisite skill and experience to manage the matter, notwithstanding:
(a) what the client saw yesterday on [Insert: The People’s Court, Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis, Divorce Court];
(b) what the client’s brother-in-law read last night on Wikipedia (or was it from some site called The Onion?, not sure …..); or
(c) what “ProSe4U” or “AlmstALwyr” said to the client when she was chatting with them, even though they both swore they got As in their undergrad pre-law classes.
Further, the client must promise not to write separate letters to the Judge, post status updates about the matter on Facebook, try to “friend” the mediator who is mediating the proceeding, post (what the client thought were) anonymous messages attacking opposing counsel on public message boards, give spontaneous interviews about the matter to the media, or decide to secretly hire another attorney in a separate state to sue the exact same cause of action, simultaneously, in a different forum. (I have witnessed colleagues deal with four of those exact things.)
Any action that involves the matter must be cleared by, or coordinated with, your attorney.
Soon, we’ll look at some additional, “non-standard” vows that a lawyer can consider making to her client.
In the meantime, which other vows (that don’t regularly appear in a standard engagment letter) would you suggest that your client make to you at the start of an engagement?