Attorneys, like other professionals, are governed by a code of high standards. These standards give you, the client, certain rights. Among those rights are the following:
The right to confidentiality
You've probably heard of the attorney-client privilege. This means that a lawyer — or any member of his or her staff — can't reveal most things you say or show to him or her. This is true (a) if you've hired that lawyer, or (b) if you're thinking of hiring the lawyer when you communicate this information. There are exceptions. For example, if your communication involves anything which may become illegal, like a scheme to defraud or give perjured testimony, then it's not privileged.
The right to full fee disclosure
Hiring an attorney means contracting for his or her services. You may shop around and bargain over fees. There's no set fee schedule in the legal profession. You also should know that it's unethical for a lawyer to charge an unreasonable fee.
Some lawyers charge nothing for an initial consultation. You may want to ask about initial fees before you discuss your problem. If an attorney decides to take your case, he or she may bill you by the hour or be paid on a percentage of any recovery (known as a contingent fee). Either way, the lawyer should tell you all the facts about the billing procedure. For example, if the lawyer requires a retainer, you should ask whether the retainer is a down payment on future billing or is nonrefundable as a fee for taking the case.
Any contingent fee agreement must be in writing. The lawyer must state whether the contingent fee is based on gross or net recovery (that is, before or after expenses). Certain types of cases, such as divorce or criminal, can't be taken on a contingency basis.
The right to know if you have a case and if the lawyer is competent to handle your case
A private attorney gets no money (except perhaps an initial consulting fee) for turning a case down. Nevertheless, an attorney is duty-bound to advise you on the strengths and weaknesses of your case. The lawyer should tell you about any possible liabilities if you lose; for instance, you may end up having to pay some of the other side's costs and attorney's fees.
Also, the lawyer must feel competent to handle your type of case. If he or she can't take your case - because of a conflict of interest, lack of training or experience or any other reason - he or she must be frank with you. An attorney may not ethically accept a case that he or she believes is frivolous or intended to harass or intimidate another person.
The right to know how your case is going
It's your case. Your attorney must answer your questions and return your calls. This doesn't mean that your lawyer is always able to respond the same day. But your attorney shouldn't ignore you. You have to realize that your attorney is handling other cases. Each of your attorney's clients probably considers his or her case to be the most important.
If your attorney receives a settlement offer from the other side, you must be told of the offer. Your attorney must ask your permission to accept or offer any amount by way of settlement. If you ask for a copy of any documents, including letters, that the attorney has prepared for your case, he or she should show or give a copy to you promptly.
You and your attorney should thoroughly discuss the goals of the legal work your attorney is doing. Both you and your attorney have the right to put limitations on your attorney's duties and responsibilities.
The right to have your property safeguarded and your funds separated from the attorney's personal funds
An attorney must preserve any property, such as documents or securities, which you give to him or her. If you later fire the attorney, he or she must immediately return your property. This may not apply to documents or property that the attorney prepared and for which he or she hasn't been paid.
In Wisconsin any interest from a small trust account goes to a tax-exempt foundation that provides funding for legal services to the poor and public legal programs. Interest on large trust accounts and those held for a long time goes to the client or clients involved.
The right to common courtesy
An attorney knows more about the law and about your type of case than you do. That's why you're looking to hire him or her. However, that doesn't mean your lawyer (including his or her staff) can look down on you or be rude to you. If there's something you don't understand about your case or how it's being handled, your lawyer owes you a careful and considerate answer to your questions.
The right to know who is actually working on your case
A lawyer sometimes refers all or part of a case to another, perhaps less experienced, member of the firm. You should be informed of that fact. If your lawyer wants to bring in outside counsel or split his or her fees with outside counsel, you must be fully advised and approve of that arrangement in advance.
The right to have your attorney free of any conflicts of interest
Your attorney may not represent you if there are conflicts with other clients. For example, if your attorney is drafting a will or participating in estate planning, your interests should not differ from the other beneficiaries of the will, trust or estate plan. You must be fully informed of any potential conflicts of interest and knowingly consent to your attorney's representation if a conflict exists.
The right to complain about attorney misconduct
Wisconsin lawyers must abide by the attorney's oath and the rules of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, especially the rules of professional conduct. Violation of these rules can subject an attorney to discipline.
What are your responsibilities, as a client, towards your lawyer?
The attorney-client relationship is a two-way street. Just as you have certain expectations from your lawyer, your lawyer has certain expectations from you, too. You should give full disclosure about your case. Be honest with your lawyer - don't hide any facts that you think might hurt your case. Nondisclosure will frequently hurt your case more, especially if the other side finds out or if your lawyer is taken by surprise. Keep your lawyer up to date on any new developments in your case (for example, newly identified witnesses or new medical problems).
Be prompt for your office appointments and court appearances. Your lawyer has a schedule to keep with his or her other clients. Appearing late for court creates a bad impression with the judge and may cost you money or cause you to lose your case.
Cooperate with your attorney in meeting deadlines, such as answering formal questions (called interrogatories) about your case. When your attorney asks for information, provide it promptly. When your attorney asks that you contact his or her office, do so in a timely way.
Be courteous towards your attorney and the attorney's staff. Don't argue with your counsel or try to second-guess your attorney. The attorney is the professional - that's why you hired an attorney, and why you should rely on your attorney's professional judgment. You have the right to disagree with your attorney's advice, but you should inform your lawyer of your disagreement in a calm and civil manner.
Pay your attorney on time. Your attorney is entitled to be paid for the services performed on your behalf, based upon your prior agreement.
If you feel your legal counsel has engaged in professional misconduct (for example, neglect, conflict of interest or misappropriation of funds), you may file a complaint with the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR, for short). Your complaint will be thoroughly and confidentially investigated.
Remember, though, that a disagreement with your attorney - including the final outcome of your case - isn't the same as misconduct. In any legal dispute between two or more parties, not everyone can be completely satisfied. Often, someone has to lose.
Note: The address of the OLR is: 110 E. Main St., Suite 315, Madison, WI 53703-3383.
Last updated: August 2005