Attorney Client Relationships 101

Apr 30, 2018 | Blog

The attorney client relationship depends on many factors. Some clients are more interested in being highly involved in the decision making. Other clients may choose to be less involved. In addition to the level of involvement, the attorney client relationship is significantly affected by the client’s previous experience dealing with the legal system. As a lawyer, you must balance those items with ABA Model Rule 1.2 (or the rule in your jurisdiction that discusses the objectives of representation). Model Rule 1.2 essentially states that it is the job of the attorney to follow the decisions made by the client. To determine how you get to the end goal the client has, you must consult with them and you must understand the power the client has in the relationship.

The Client’s Side of the Attorney Client Relationship

You did your time in law school. You studied and passed the bar. The common public sees you as a legal expert and they come to you for help. Yet, that doesn’t mean that the client has no power in the attorney client relationship.

In the attorney client relationship, your client has the sole power to make two decisions:

  1. The end goal for their situation. Even if you aren’t entirely sure that their decision is in their best interest, it is your job to help them meet their ultimate goal. For example, if someone comes to you to set-up a will that equally distributes their property to their three adult children and you find out that one of those children has a long criminal history for embezzlement, you do not have the authority to change the outcome on behalf of the client. If a client doesn’t want to settle and they want to spend their time and money by going to trial, you go to trial as long as you’re not abusing the court and filing frivolous motions. Of course, it’s always prudent to provide the client with information that you think could help them make an educated decision, but the decision is still theirs.
  2. Whether they’re interested in accepting a settlement. If you believe that a client should accept a settlement because they won’t do any better at trial, they have the right to refuse. You have the obligation to support their decision. You may not accept any offer without the consent of your client. You cannot extend a settlement offer without consent for your client. Again, you can provide information that you believe will help your client make an educated decision, but you must support whatever decision they make.

The Attorney’s Side of the Attorney Client Relationship

Generally speaking, how you choose to achieve the client’s end goal is within your power in the attorney client relationship. Of course, it’s important to consult any contract you’ve signed to ensure that you understand what you can and cannot do. This is especially important if you work with businesses. Many businesses will have a standard list of terms and conditions that you must follow. Usually, though, you control:

  • Which vendors to use. You can choose your own e-discovery software and other vendors that you believe are necessary to meet the needs of your client. Remember, though, if you signed a contract, read it to ensure that your choices aren’t limited. If they are limited, remember to abide by those limits.
  • Staffing choices. Even if your client insists that someone specific from your office should or shouldn’t be involved in their case (provided there’s no ethical issue that results), it’s up to you.
  • You do not have to participate in a crime or in fraudulent activity. In fact, Model Rule 1.2 states that you must refuse to help with criminal or fraudulent activity.
  • While the client can tell you that they want you to depose someone, they do not get to choose the date. You have the authority to choose the date. Of course, it’s always prudent to check with everyone involved to ensure the best date is chosen.
  • Small details. For example, while the client decides if they want to accept or extend a settlement, you have the power to decide how to approach opposing counsel. The tone you choose in letters or whether you decide to spend time with opposing counsel to talk about the case is also your decision. If it is a detail that falls within the boundaries of the reason the client hired you, you can decide.