Client Relations - Frequently Asked Questions

Why are client relations important?

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A recent study1 conducted by the ABA revealed that issues resulting from client relations problems resulted in 6,584 legal malpractice claims in 2011.

1 See ABA Standing Committee on Lawyer’s Professional Liability, Profile of Legal Malpractice Claims: 2008-2011 11 (2012).

What ethical duties involve client relations?

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  • Model Rule 1.1: Duty of Competency
    • Lawyers owe a duty of competency to clients, and this demands the “legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”2   Further, the duty provides that “[c]ompetent handling of a particular matter includes inquiry into . . . …the factual and legal elements of the problem.”
    • Often, poor client relations result when a lawyer does more talking than listening to the client.  Listening is essential to competent representation because inquiry into the factual and legal basis of the matter is mandatory.4
  • Model Rule 1.3: Duty of Diligence
    • Lawyers have an ethical duty to, “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”5
    • A lawyer may experience “opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience” when dealing with a client.6 However, the duty of diligence requires the lawyer to “take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause” in spite of this.7
  • Model Rule 1.4: Communication
    • By far, the majority of Client Relations issues stem from poor communication.  To avoid these problems, lawyers should regularly consult their clients and keep them informed about the representation.
    • Typically, lawyers are bound to consult with their clients about the methods used to accomplish the objectives of representation.8
    • In addition, lawyers should reasonably inform clients about the status of the representation, including “significant developments affecting the timing or the substance of the representation.”9
    • Lawyers are usually obligated to “promptly respond to or acknowledge client communications.”10 It is worth noting that previously this clause applied only to client telephone calls.11 In light of modern technology, recent revisions to the ABA Model Rules broadened this clause to encompass all client communications. Always check the local rules.
    • See also the Best Practices section on this website: “Technology” discussing the response of the legal community to changes in technology.
    • Regardless of periods of inactivity in a matter, a lawyer should maintain regular contact with clients to reduce requests for information and the risk of miscommunication.12

2 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.1(1983) (amended 2013).

3 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.1 cmt. 5 (1983) (amended 2013).

4 Id.

5 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.3 (1983) (amended 2013).

6 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.3 cmt. 1 (1983) (amended 2013).

7 Id.

8 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.4 (a)(2) (1983) (amended 2013).

9 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.4 cmt. 3 (1983) (amended 2013).

10 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.4 cmt. 4 (1983) (amended 2013).

11 LEGAL ETHICS FORUM (Aug. 6, 2012), http://www.legalethicsforum.com/blog/2012/08/ethics2020changes.html (discussing the 2012 amendments to the Model Rules).

12 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.4 cmt. 4 (1983) (amended 2013).

How do courts regard client relations rules?

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Ethical rules are only a guide for the courts. Ultimately, the court has the final say in determining whether it was acceptable for a lawyer to take a case.

Check the local rules for variations in the rules or their interpretation.

Must a lawyer represent a difficult or disagreeable client?

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Generally, a lawyer cannot be compelled to represent a client “whose character or cause the lawyer regards as repugnant,” even when appointed by a tribunal.13 Repugnant character constitutes good cause to avoid representation when it is likely to affect the “client-lawyer relationship or the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.”14

In addition, lawyers are prohibited from taking on a client who seeks counsel or assistance with illegal or unethical activities.15

See also the Best Practices section on this website: “Withdrawal” for further discussion of circumstances in which a lawyer should decline or terminate representation.

13 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 6.2 cmt. 1 (1983) (amended 2013).

14 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 6.2(c) (1983) (amended 2013).

15 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.16(a)(1) (1983) (amended 2013).

What if a disagreement with a client arises during active representation?

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Sometimes a disagreement concerning how to best accomplish the client’s goals arises between a lawyer and client during an active representation.16 Lawyers should try to reach a “mutually acceptable resolution” with these clients.17 However, if a lawyer and the client reach an impasse and cannot resolve the dispute, then the lawyer may potentially withdraw from the representation.18 Rules for withdrawal vary by jurisdiction and circumstance.

See also the Best Practices section on this website: “Withdrawal” for further discussion of circumstances in which a lawyer should decline or terminate representation.

16 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.2 cmt. 2 (1983) (amended 2013).

17 Id.

18 Id.

What if a dispute over attorneys' fees arises?

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Usually, if a client disputes the attorneys’ fees charged, then the lawyer may only withdraw undisputed portions from the client trust account.19  Even if a fee agreement exists and the fees are prearranged, fees are considered in dispute once an inquiry about their validity is made.  Lawyers should not remove trust account funds even when they are certain they are entitled to the fees under the fee agreement.20

See also the Best Practices section on this website: “Billing Issues” for additional information about how to navigate fee disputes.

19 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R. 1.15(e) (1983), available here.

20 Id.

Do gifts promote good client relations?

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Generally, a lawyer may receive modest, unsolicited gifts from clients.21

However, a lawyer should not solicit substantial gifts from a client, including testamentary gifts, unless the client is a close relative.22

See also the Best Practices section on this website: “Conflicts of Interest” describing issues that can potentially arise between a lawyer and a current, former, or prospective client.

21 See MODEL RULES OF PROF’L CONDUCT R.1.8(c) (1983) (amended 2013).

22 Id.

 

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Risk Management Best Practices Database Legal Statement

Information provided by Attorney Protective is not intended as legal advice. This publication provides best practices for use in connection with general circumstances, and ordinarily does not address specific situations. These best practices are not intended to meet or establish the standard of care, and sometimes recommend practices that exceed the standard of care. Specific situations should be discussed with legal counsel licensed in the appropriate jurisdiction. By publishing practice and risk prevention tips, Attorney Protective neither implies nor provides any guarantee that claims can be prevented by use of the suggested practices. Though the contents of Attorney Protective's Best Practice Database have been carefully researched, Attorney Protective makes no warranty as to the accuracy, applicability or timeliness of the content. Anyone wishing to reproduce any part of the Attorney Protective Best Practices Database content must request permission from Attorney Protective by calling 877-728-8776 or sending an email to erin.mccartney@attorneyprotective.com. Additionally the rules cited in the contents of this database may have since changed. You should check the laws and model rules in your state for specific information on the topics addressed here.