How to Work with an Attorney
When you hire a private attorney, choose what kind of relationship you want with your attorney. You hire an attorney for their experience on legal procedures and familiarity with the appropriate court system. However, the more fully informed you are, the better prepared you will be to make the necessary key decisions and to oversee your attorneys' work.
Should I be involved in the handling of my legal case? You are already deeply involved. The case's outcome will inevitably affect you more than your attorney. No matter what role you envision for your attorney, be the decision maker on all major points in your case.
How involved should I be in my legal case? At a minimum, learn some of the law relevant to your case. Look through the topic areas on this site. Learn about basic courtroom procedures. Beyond this minimum level of involvement, there is a fairly broad range of possibilities. For example:
- Attorney as “Coach”
- You may hire the attorney to act as a legal advisor to your case, which you handle yourself.
- Not all attorneys will be comfortable in this role, but many attorneys, especially in smaller firms, may be interested in empowering consumers.
- Client in Support Role
- You support the attorney through gathering documents and other agreed upon tasks.
- It may be wise both financially and in terms of your attorney's time for you to volunteer to undertake certain tasks to support the work on your case.
- There are a number of tasks in the development of any case that do not require specialized legal expertise. For example, you can compile general information, research company regulations or company policy, obtain birth certificates or other documents, review the factual portions of documents prepared for court, or take other actions that you or your attorney identify as helpful for the case.
- Traditional Approach
- Under the scenario, often presented in films or television, a client simply informs the attorney of the problem and the attorney, without regard for expenses or further consultation, "solves" the case.
- In real life, it is much more of a partnership.
- It is critical for you to expressly detail your expectations regarding consultation and decision-making on both the outcomes and cost of the case at the outset of your relationship with the attorney.
Your relationship with your attorney can fall anywhere along the range of options described above. In making the decision about the degree of your involvement, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you want your attorney to act as pro se coach or as your representative?
- How much time and effort can I realistically contribute?
- What work can you provide on the case?
- What are my needs to control (monitor) the day-to-day direction of the case?
- How familiar am I with this area of the law?
- How much is this case worth to me (financially)?
- How important is the outcome?
Communicate with your attorney so that you both have a clear agreement and understanding about your relative roles and expectations. Be aware that your involvement should not hinder the attorney from exercising the expertise for which you hired the attorney. However, the attorney should explain all options to you clearly.
- Ask questions about the details of a proposed action until you understand how it will affect your case. Be wary of an attorney making strategic decisions without you or presenting a proposed next step as necessary without explaining the merits and costs of the option
- How frequently do you want to receive a billing (or a list of expenses, if a contingency fee)?
- Do you want to review copies of pleadings (court papers) before they are filed? Receive copies after they are filed? Review some but not all documents? Which ones?
- How often do you want to talk to the attorney or receive a case update? Can staff convey the message? Will a short note be sufficient?
- How often is it appropriate to meet? What benchmark should trigger a meeting?
- Are there spending limits for expenses or fees which should trigger a call to you before going ahead on the case?
Maintain Your Own Copies. No matter what role you and your attorney agree upon, maintain your own copies of all files and original documents in a safe place (e.g., fireproof box, bank vault). Do not rely upon your lawyer's file system as the only repository for these important papers.
Put any agreements between yourself and your attorney in writing! This is especially important for fee arrangements. A written agreement specifying the fee arrangement and the work involved is the best way of assuring clear communication between you and your attorney about the total cost of the case.