Ethics Pitfalls – Communication

When clients walk through your door, they are often in unfamiliar, intimidating and frightening territory as they navigate our adversarial legal system. Perhaps this is their first attorney-client relationship. It may prove to be their only one.

As with any relationship, communication is key.

ABA Model Rule 1.4 addresses a lawyer’s duty to communicate with clients and provides in part that a lawyer shall “keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter” and “promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.” The ABA Comment notes that reasonable communication between lawyer and client is necessary for the client effectively to participate in the representation. Most states have adopted a version that is similar, if not identical, to the ABA model rule.

Few would argue with those principles, but your idea of “reasonably informed” and “promptly” may well differ from that of your client, who is in a high-stress situation and feeling powerless and dependent.

The “Needy” Client

We’ve all had the client who needs a higher degree of hand-holding, even comforting. And with an already hectic schedule, it may be tempting to ignore the messages from this client particularly when there is no new development in their matter.

Keep in mind, though, that the client who is inclined to repeatedly call your office for ongoing assurance of the progress in their case would likely demonstrate the same zeal in the disciplinary counsel’s office. Although there may be no new developments to report to the client, or only uneventful progress such as status calls, your client may interpret silence from your office as a sign of trouble and not as an indication that all is well and on track.

Statistics show that a large percentage of grievances filed by clients allege a failure by their attorney to keep them informed about the status of their legal matter.

To illustrate, the 2009 Annual Report issued by the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois reported that just over 17% of all investigations docketed in that year included an allegation of failing to communicate with the client, second only to allegations of neglect. Could many of those complaints have been avoided with a simple phone call to say “everything is under control” or “no response yet, but I’ll get in touch as soon as I hear”?

Utilizing Technology to your Advantage

There are more methods of communication available to us than ever before: e-mail, cell phones, texts, faxes, and traditional paper correspondence. Find out what works best for you and your client, keep them informed, and keep the lines of communication open.

Check out these apps for attorneys that can strengthen communications with clients