Every client of an attorney, an accountant or physician has certain rights. Every profession that requires licensing and oversight by the government have a document that tells you what rights you have and what responsibility the professional has to you.
While every state has enacted its own set of clients’ rights, they are all based on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct of the American Bar Association. Attorneys are expected to guarantee, at a minimum, the following areas of rights for their clients.
- The lawyer you hire is required to be honest about their capability and experience. They are prohibited from taking a case they should know is frivolous or is only meant to harass another person. If they take your case, they must be certain that they have the required expertise to handle the case competently. They are prohibited from claiming experience and ability where they have none.
- Your attorney and his staff are bound to respectfully communicate with you regarding your case. They must keep you informed of the actions they recommend so that you will have the best chance to achieve your objectives.
- Your legal consultant is required to make a full disclosure of their fees for handling your case. Whether your attorney charges an hourly fee with a retainer, a flat fee or a percentage of the recovery from the awards if you win the case. The fees and how they are charged may vary with their experience and expertise. Hiring the less expensive attorney is not always the best way to save money. It is common for lawyers to charge clients for time spent on items like telephone calls, photocopies and expert witness fees. Before you assign the attorney your case, be absolutely certain that you understand the structure and amount of all fees and charges.
- Your attorney and their staff must keep total confidentiality of anything you tell them. This is called attorney-client privilege and violation of this precept is a serious breach of legal ethics.
- Conflict of interest is a serious violation of ethics. Your attorney must be loyal to you only. If they have other clients that conflict with this rule, they should not take your case. For instance, if you are suing your employer, but the office also handles matters for that company, they are prohibited from taking your case under this rule.
- Your attorney cannot take your case, then leave you in the dark about how it is proceeding. They must give prompt attention to inquiries and keep you fully informed about its progress with regular communication.
- You must receive a complete accounting of all money that you give the attorney, including retainers. Your money is to be kept in a separate attorney trust account. They cannot take your money, then use it for payroll or office expenses. These rules are very strict, and you must approve invoices before they can take the funds from the special account. If the case ends or you dismiss the attorney, the unused money must be refunded.
- If you feel your attorney is guilty of misconduct by breaking these rules, you can formally complain to the California Bar Association. If may take some months, but the association takes these matters very seriously. If your charges have merit, the bar is your best chance for real action.
The above rules are real protections against unscrupulous attorneys. Every student in every law school takes special classes about these matters. They must pass the bar exam that contains a separate section that pertains directly to ethical conduct. There is no reason for any attorney not following these rules to the letter.
As you can see, there was an excellent reason for your attorney to give you a Statement of Client’s Rights. This is a good instruction about how to protect yourself and your case. Read the statement carefully and ask questions if you do not understand any part. Nearly all attorneys are ethical, and their actions are above reproach, but these client rights will protect you if the worst happens, and will help prevent a violation.