Whether you are hiring an attorney for estate planning, a litigation matter, criminal defense, or for a corporate negotiation, there are a number of attributes to the legal representation that you should be able to expect. While the list could be much longer, here are five:
- Knowledge of the law. While every lawyer has to go to law school and pass the bar in order to practice, these are really bare minimums. Given the complexity of our modern world, every area of the law has become a specialty, whether it’s defense against driving citation, evicting a tenant, issuing stock in a corporation, or applying for MassHealth benefits, no one attorney can know it all, and you probably don’t want to pay for her to learn. In addition, while statutes and regulations can be found in law books and online, how they are applied in practice can differ widely from what’s written. It can only be known through familiarity with the agency or tribunal applying the law. If you are bringing a claim for personal injury, your lawyer needs to know if your type of case is likely to settle for $100,000 or $1 million. For these reasons, while knowledge of the law should be a given, you can only assure it by hiring an attorney who has experience in the appropriate field of law.
- Ability to listen. You are unique and your goals are unique. If you are getting divorced, is it more important to you that you get every dime you can out of the marriage or that you and your ex-spouse are on speaking terms so that you can cooperatively raise your children? If you are planning for the possible future need for long-term care, is it more important to you that you save every last penny to pass on to your children and grandchildren or that you keep control over your assets in order to maintain your dignity and obtain the best possible care? Or would you like to steer a middle course, assuring that you pass some money on to your family while, at the same time, you keep some for your own needs and desires? Your attorney can only know your values and interests if he takes the time to listen.
- Clarity. Your attorney needs to be clear in his communications with you, whether explaining the law and your options, the chances of success for each option, his fees, or how he works. Will he respond to your inquiries within minutes, hours, or days? Will he personally work on various aspects of your case, or will he delegate to associates and paralegals? Attorneys need to take the time to explain legal terms and concepts that may seem basic to them. What’s the difference between a guardian and a conservator? What is probate property? What’s the difference between an estate tax and income taxable to an estate? Since we don’t know what the client already knows or doesn’t know, or how much of what we’ve explained was absorbed, lawyers need to keep checking in with their clients and asking them what was clear and what was as opaque as mud.
- Responsiveness. Related to listening and clarity, lawyers need to respond both to client concerns and questions in the moment and to inquiries that come in whether by email, snail mail, or telephone. But responsiveness doesn’t necessarily mean responding within minutes. It’s usually better to respond less quickly but fully than to jot off an email that may or may not answer the client’s concerns or questions. However, the client needs to know what to expect. Often, misunderstandings or disappointments occur because expectations are not spelled out. No one knows what’s going on in someone else’s head. An attorney or paralegal may feel that responding to a question within 24 or 48 hours is sufficient, while the client is stressing out about the issue and expecting a response within the hour, or at least by close of business that day. Both sides of the equation need to be clear about what they expect and what they can deliver. It is much better that the lawyer or paralegal respond to an email, saying she’ll answer the question the next day or the day after next, then not respond at all until she’s ready to answer the question. If she doesn’t even have time to do that, she should ask a paralegal or administrative assistant to do so.
- Efficiency. You should expect that your attorney or law firm works as efficiently as possible on your matter. That said, no one can be perfectly efficient. We may not know that an alley of legal research is blind until we’ve gone down it part way. Often, in retrospect, we will know how we could have accomplished our goals more efficiently, but neither life nor legal representation work retrospectively. That said, going back to the first expectation, your lawyers will be able to work more efficiently in fields where they practice consistently. That way, they’ll already know the blind alleys to avoid.
You should also be able to expect confidence, experience, personal attention, respect for your money, respect for you, zealous advocacy, effectiveness, and results from your attorney or law firm. If, for any reason, you feel that any of these expectations are not being fulfilled, talk to your attorney. It’s better to communicate and clear the air than to continue with misgivings.