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The Attorney-Client Relationship – Are You Getting What You Deserve?

| Deana A. Labriola Deana A. Labriola

Your relationship with your attorney should be considered no different from any other customer service relationship you have.  Is your attorney providing you with the basic tenets of customer service?

At its most basic level, the relationship between attorneys and clients is one of customer service – the attorney provides a service to the client and the client pays for it.  If the relationship is done right, you and your business should have a long and rewarding relationship with an attorney or attorneys, with you considering the attorney(s) as an essential part of your business team. 

On the other hand, the attorney should consider a client as the attorney's customer, always remembering how the attorney wants to be treated when buying a service from others.  While every attorney-client relationship is different, every client should receive a base level of customer service from his or her attorney. 

The following tenets are critical to a successful attorney-client relationship.  If you and your attorney are not able to get together on these basic tenets, it may be time for you to re-evaluate your relationship. 

Communication – Does Your Attorney Talk to You?

Good communication is the guiding principle of any relationship and should be the defining principle of your attorney-client relationship.  One of the most frequent client complaints about attorneys is that they do not return telephone calls promptly or respond to emails in a timely manner.  You should expect a timely, not necessarily immediate, response to all of your communications.  It's as simple as that. 

While the above is true, you should also remember that attorneys must balance, manage, and prioritize the needs of all of their clients.  You will not be your attorney's only client, and each client will feel that his or her need is the greatest and most immediate.  Your attorney must prioritize and balance those many needs simultaneously, but should let each client, including you, know what to expect.  While all matters won't need your attorney's immediate attention, your attorney should gauge priorities and clearly communicate a time frame for when your matter will be addressed (and then meet that timeframe, of course!). 

In addition, your attorney should proactively keep you informed about your matter.  While many things in the business world move slower or faster than anticipated, your attorney should know the status of your matter at all times, and communicate with you on a periodic basis even if there is no status change at all. 

Forget TV; Competence in the Law Does Not Always Equal a Win

If you are seeking legal advice about an employment, business, or other matter, your attorney should have a basic skill set or core competency to solve the problems about which you are seeking advice.  This may be the most difficult piece of the relationship for you to judge, simply because you will not have a background in the particular area of law at issue.  However, do your homework on a prospective attorney and be leery if the attorney states or implies that he or she can handle a matter when that attorney cannot provide you with evidence of a core competency in that subject area.  Ask questions and judge the answers, just as you would with doctors, general contractors, or automobile service departments. 

Competence also means that the attorney knows when he or she should not handle a matter for you.  The law today is filled with specialty practices.  For good or bad, there is too much law made each day for any attorney to stay abreast of it all.  Therefore, if a prospective attorney indicates that he or she handles every kind of matter, be afraid, be very afraid.  A good attorney will honestly tell you what is outside of the attorney's expertise, and then find someone, either inside or outside of the attorney's firm, who can help.

Finally, you should remember that, in any litigation, there is a winner and a loser, or two losers.  Litigation is seldom a "win-win" proposition.  Usually, even the loser is represented by an attorney.  Good attorneys advocate for their clients, but advocating does not always equal a win.  Remember, Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes trial and Atticus Finch lost Tom Robinson's trial.  Even good attorneys get a bad result sometimes, but your judgment about an attorney should not always be about wins and losses.  Instead, your judgment should include whether the attorney vigorously advocated for the client's rights and provided the level of service needed and expected to do the job.    

Fees – Does it Really Cost That? 

Good attorneys are not cheap, but do you choose your doctor based on who charges the lowest fee?  Attorneys do need to let you know and help you to understand in advance the work that will be performed and how billing will be handled.  A good attorney will talk to you at the beginning of an engagement and explain the billing process in detail.  Then, when bills are high, a good attorney will provide enough detail so you will know what work has been done for the fee charged.  A good attorney lets you know in advance what to expect about bills, and then follows through.  If a matter will cost more than originally expected, and sometimes it does for reasons outside of the attorney's control, a good attorney will communicate that to you early and often. 

Along those lines, a good attorney also makes proper choices about who performs the work.  The attorney should make thoughtful choices about whether a paralegal or junior associate can do a particular task as effectively as the attorney, but for less.   

While everybody enjoys getting the lowest price for services provided, legal fees should not be about the lowest price.  In your business, you don't always contract with the lowest bidder.  You take experience, reputation, and proven performance into consideration as well.  In your personal life, you don't always buy the cheapest product.  After all, both a Yugo and a Lexus are cars, but you will consider what you want your car to provide for you.

A good attorney will add value to your business or affairs and deserves to be paid for the attorney's time in light of the value provided.  You should ask questions about anything that is unclear with respect to a bill, and your attorney should always be willing to answer those questions thoughtfully.  That way, you can feel fully informed even in the wake of an expensive legal bill. 

Basic Expectations – Is the Customer Service Relationship that Hard?

The remaining qualities a good attorney should have are what you should expect every service provider to provide to you as a customer.  They are:

  • Listens to you.
  • Treats you with respect and courtesy.
  • Pays attention to you and your matter:  No matter how small your matter is, you should never feel that it is too small for your attorney's attention. 
  • Is accessible and responsive.  That does not mean that your attorney cannot go on vacation or have other clients, but your attorney should communicate to you if he or she will be out of town and nevertheless be accessible when you really need immediate help.   

Conclusion

The attorney‑client relationship is no different from any other customer service relationship.  A buyer expects good service and a quality product from the person who works on his or her home, from the person who sells insurance, and from any person who serves the customer in a restaurant.  Good attorneys communicate and advocate with and for clients, develop strong relationships with their clients, and provide excellent customer service.  If a good attorney accomplishes these things, he or she is worth the money spent.  Are you getting what you deserve?    

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© 2016 Ward and Smith, P.A. For further information regarding the issues described above, please contact Deana A. Labriola.

This article is not intended to give, and should not be relied upon for, legal advice in any particular circumstance or fact situation. No action should be taken in reliance upon the information contained in this article without obtaining the advice of an attorney.

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