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The yin & yang of the attorney-client relationship

Confidentiality and Truth

There is no privilege more honored in our judicial system than the attorney-client privilege. The privilege means information you tell your attorney in confidence will not be revealed by your attorney to anyone without your permission. Reciprocally, your attorney needs you to tell the truth, the good, the bad and the ugly. An attorney who knows his or her client is being honest and a client who knows his or her attorney will not betray a confidence no matter how embarrassing, is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Loyalty and Realism

You should expect your attorney to be your advocate and promote your best interests. Expect your attorney to be loyal to you. When times get tough for you, your attorney may become your most trusted friend, deservedly. But clients need to be realistic about the reasonable outcomes for their case. Clients with unreasonable expectations may blame an attorney's lack of loyalty as the reason for their disappointment. In reality, compromised resolutions that do not meet the client's fondest dreams are most often better than drawn-out and expensive court battles to the death. Clients need to dismiss the stereotypes. An attorney with a reputation of getting things done is the better choice over the attorney with a reputation of being a fighter.

An Honest Assessment of Your Claim and A Business-Like Attitude

Clients hire attorneys to help resolve the most serious of their problems - divorces, DUIs, discrimination to name a few examples. The client's problems naturally come wrapped in a big emotional package. Sometimes clients are victims of circumstances and sometimes clients have caused their circumstances. Most times, it is a little of both.

Expect your attorney to give you an honest assessment of your situation, and don't expect your attorney to tell you exactly what you hoped for. In fact, an attorney who only agrees with you and only delivers good news could be one who has yet to be paid your retainer.

An honest assessment of your case can be sorely disappointing. You may be very sad, angry or frustrated with the assessment. But, ultimately the legal problem is best solved when you can muster the strength to return to a business-like attitude. What you should expect is a message like this from your attorney: We have identified a serious and complex problem. Together we want an optimum and simple resolution. Let's combine our efforts, set aside the emotional baggage, and figure it out.

If you need a psychotherapist, hire a psychotherapist. They charge less per hour.

Fair Price and Financial Responsibility

Many attorneys are paid by the hour just like plumbers, e.g. divorce work and business transactions. Many are paid a flat rate for a singular service - traffic court or a residential real estate transaction. Clients are paying for advice, experience, intelligence and problem solving skills, the value of which is measured in time or outcome. Attorneys are required by their rules of ethics to charge a fair price.

Which begs the question: What is a fair price? Ultimately, a fair price is that price that the client is willing to pay and the attorney is willing to accept. Therefore, make an agreement with your attorney immediately and with all due candor about what you will be expected to pay. Hourly or flat rates of pay, billing and charges for items that aren't strictly legal services (like subpoena service fees, copying costs, deposition transcription costs) all should be discussed immediately and frankly at the beginning of the relationship.

As my mentor told me to ask my clients: "Okay, now that we have identified the problem, tell me, how much are you actually willing to pay for your principles?" Ask yourself before the attorney asks: "How much?" An agreement over a fair price is made.

What next? Clients need to pay their bills. A false stereotype about attorneys is that they are all rich. Some are. Most attorneys are middle class. Attorneys in private practice are small, local businesses, not unlike the restaurant down the street. Before paying themselves they need to make payroll for their legal assistants, pay the lease on the copier and their offices, and make sure their monthly phone bills are paid. To do that, attorneys need to count on their clients to pay for their services.

Please pay the bills and if you can't do it all at once, make a payment arrangement with your attorney.

Legal Advice - Take It or Leave It?

I am always amazed at the number of clients who hire an attorney, pay for his or her legal advice, and then ignore the advice. Clients should follow the advice of attorneys who work diligently, have good professional reputations, communicate well and propose reasonable solutions. Emotional and unreasonable arguments against the advice, or shopping the advice to friends and family to prove the attorney wrong, is, as Mr. Spock would say, "Not logical." Take the advice you paid for.

On the other hand, I have met a fair number of people who felt trapped because they were afraid to fire their attorneys. They were in situations where the attorneys' advice proposed solutions that were not the best or the only alternative. But, have no fear, clients have the right, at any time, to fire their attorneys for any reason, even for an illogical reason.

But take this advice: Firing your attorney does not mean that you will not be required to pay the bill for services rendered up to the time of firing, especially if the firing was for one of those illogical reasons.