Your five fundamental rights as a client when working with an attorney

Many clients are not aware of their most fundamental rights when being represented by an attorney and what duties attorneys owe to their clients as a matter of law and the code of ethics. This lack of knowing your rights and your lawyer’s duties in an attorney-client relationship can hurt you as a client but not allowing you to fully enjoy the benefits of legal representation and knowing what protections you, as a client are entitled to.
Here are a few basic yet very important rights that you have as a client when retaining and attorney and attorney’s duties to you as a client:
1. Attorney’s duty to communicate – your lawyer must keep you reasonably informed of any developments that are taking place in your case. Your attorney must also be prompt it returning your communication (phone calls, e-mails and letters).
2. Attorney-Client Privilege / Duty of Confidentiality. Your attorney has a duty to keep all communications (verbal, in writing or otherwise) confidential and not reveal your confidences. A communication is confidential if it is made in a course of your professional relationship with an attorney regarding your case with the expectation that that communication will remain private.
3. The right to terminate / change attorneys. This is one of the most important rights that you have as a client and the one that so many people are not aware of having. You are entitled to terminate your relationship with an attorney and represent yourself (in pro per) or hire alternate counsel at any time you want. Should you terminate your relationship with an attorney, he / she must forward your entire file to your or your new attorney promptly. Similarly, your attorney can stop representing you at any time before litigation ensued by notifying you in writing, or for “good cause” if the lawsuit was filed and your rights will be prejudiced if your attorney abandons your case without allowing for sufficient time for you to obtain new counsel.

4. The right to a detailed billing statement for legal services from your attorney. As a client, you are entitled to receiving a detailed bill with the full breakdown of the costs and fees that attorney is charging you. The bill should include the time spent by your attorney on each task performed and what that task involved. In other words, you are definitely entitled to a greater detail than “3 hours – legal services” breakdown. A an example of a proper billing language that will make you feel more comfortable and will make your attorney less likely to be incorrect in his calculation of his fees is something like this: “12 minutes – a conversation with opposing counsel regarding responses to discovery. Agreed to an extension of 2 weeks to respond to interrogatories.”

5. The right to make ultimate decisions in a case. It is important that your remember that your attorney’s job is not to make decisions in your case but advise you on what course of action to take considering all the facts and circumstances of your case / situation. An attorney cannot and must not decide how much money he should settle your case for, whether he should dismiss the case, agree or disagree to go to trial and alike. An attorney must advise you of the relevant options you have at any given stage in the case, inform you of advantage and risks associated with any step you might be taking, recommend you the best course of action in your attorney’s professional opinion and then expect your final say as to what will be done in your case.

* Finally, before you decide to hire an attorney, do not forget to check that he is who he actually says he is. Many “fake” attorneys, suspended attorneys, and paralegals have been caught and prosecuted for unauthorized practice of law during the past few years. Make sure you are dealing with an actual attorney who is licensed to practice law in California. This is easy – just go to http://members.calbar.ca.gov/search/member.aspx , plug the name of your attorney and you will be able to see his contact information, brief biography, bar membership status and history of misconduct, if any.

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