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What Should You Expect From Your Attorney?

The purpose of this column is to improve the relationship between attorneys and clients. I hope that by providing insight into the legal mind, you can establish a more effective relationship with your legal counsel, and that in turn will improve your chance for success in business.

A central question which you must ask choosing legal counsel is what you can reasonably expect from your attorney . The following are my thoughts regarding the characteristics of a good legal counsel:

  1. A good attorney is independent. In order for your attorney to be effective, he must be independent from you and from any other entangling alliances which might prevent him from giving a completely candid and objective opinion. If the attorney is afraid of losing your business, it is at least possible that he or she will tailor advice so as to make it more palatable. Even the possibility of that occurrence taints the relationship. Independence is essential.
  2. A good attorney is responsive. One of the most common complaints I hear from clients regarding attorneys is their lack of responsiveness. They may fail to return phone calls, or delay in producing necessary correspondence or documents. The hallmark of a good professional is accessibility. Thus, you must be able to get through to your attorney within a reasonable period of time by telephone. Ideally, the attorney will take your call immediately. If he is unable to take your call, he should return it at his earliest convenience. He will also produce documentation as promised and in any event in a timely enough manner for it to be effective and to fill its purpose. If you find your attorney is not responsive, call your dissatisfaction to his attention. If he remains unresponsive, find another attorney.
  3. A good attorney is candid. This trait is tied to independence. Attorneys are often bearers of bad tidings, but much like a doctor, a less than honest diagnosis is useless at best and could be dangerous to your welfare. Any doubt in your mind regarding your attorney's candor will compromise the relationship and make you question his judgement.
  4. A good attorney delivers solutions. For an advisor to provide only problem identification without suggesting a solution renders the advice useless. This is probably the second most common complaint I hear from clients regarding attorneys: They fail to offer practical useable ways to solve problems. If you find this trait in your attorney, find another attorney. Problem solving consists of two steps:
    • Properly identifying the problem; then
    • Creating the most practical solution.
  5. .A good attorney bills fairly. Fair billing consists of billing only for time actually spent (or otherwise in accordance with the applicable fee agreement) but it also includes billing for all time devoted to a client matter. A good attorney will be economic in his application of time to your case, but he will apply all necessary time to the solution of your legal problem. Thus, he should expect to get paid only for the work he actually does (or time he incurs). By the same token, you should expect to pay for all of the work you receive. Failure to abide by either principle creates fatal flaws in the attorney/client relationship, which will lead to its demise on unsatisfactory terms.
  6. A good attorney takes human factors into account. Law is a profession. It is regulated by certain rules and principles, and despite certain public opinion, it is fundamental to maintenance of a free democracy. While an attorney has a duty to know and apply the law, he also has a duty to provide counsel which acknowledges the imperfections and foilables of the human condition. A good attorney will bring this attitude not only into his relationship with you, but also into the advice he gives you with respect to your dealings with the other side. This sense of humanity is partly innate and partly a function of experience, but it is critical to mature legal advice. If your attorney lacks this sense of humanity, find another attorney.
  7. A good attorney remains current. It is critical for attorneys, just as it is for doctors or dentists or any other professional, to remain current in his chosen professional field. A legitimate (but seldom asked) question for a new client of his attorney is the most recent professional seminar the attorney attended in the relevant field. If the attorney's continuing education in that field is more than one year old, question whether the attorney is current.
  8. A good attorney attempts to resolve your legal problem at the lowest possible cost, all things considered. Part of the "art" of being a good business lawyer is solving a client's problem at the lowest possible cost. This of course assumes that the client's problem is one which will require some payment from the client to resolve. This will usually (but not always) cause the attorney to recommend against protracted litigation , and to institute serious settlement discussions at the earliest opportunity. Unless your attorney has a good idea of the availability and cost of all options early on in the case, he will be unable to maximize the result. In previous columns I've spoken about the dilemma which arises in dispute resolution when the collective attorney's fees incurred by all sides reaches "critical mass". It's at this point that settlement of the case becomes much more difficult since the plaintiff feels he must recover his attorney's fees, as well as his primary damages in order to settle the case, and the defendant may put less on the table since he likewise has incurred significant attorney's fees. Avoidance of this critical mass problem is fundamental to most legal problem solving, and it is the attorney's duty to achieve that result. If your attorney does not bring this philosophy to his representation, find another attorney.

There are other hallmarks of good attorneys, but this list presents those which I feel are most important. Test your legal counsel against these measures. If he or she is found wanting, find another attorney.

*article courtesy of Michael L. Hanks.

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