I did what seems to be the unthinkable today for a newer law practice — I had to turn away business. Instead of getting into any details, let’s discuss some of the most important ethical behaviors and duties that lawyers must take into account before and during representation. Be sure to expect nothing less from your attorney.
1. Provides Competent Service — Your lawyer must provide you with competent service and representation. The lawyer must have the knowledge to be able to work through your problem, and do so thoroughly. For example, if a lawyer only focuses on estate planning, the lawyer cannot be expected to defend an aviation law case the next morning.
2. Regularly Communicates – Your lawyer must keep you reasonably informed about your matter, and explain the necessary factors to help you make an informed decision. Returning phone calls and answering emails should not be too much to expect, although instantaneous response likely is.
3. Charges Reasonable Fees – The lawyer’s fee must be “reasonable”. Factors to be considered include time and labor required, the customary fees charged by other local attorneys, and the years of experience, level of competence and ability to work towards a satisfactory conclusion.
As an aside, an attorney in North Carolina expresses a common frustration regarding value vs. pricing for estate planning services in this post. While we’re all looking for a bargain during these times and business is business, legal matters are simply too important to find an inexpensive solution that is “good enough”. Additionally, is it possible that a young, hungry and less expensive attorney just out of school might be overestimating his own abilities?
4. Maintains Strict Confidentiality — This is too big a topic to cover in a short paragraph, but basically your lawyer cannot reveal any damaging information given by you during the relationship. The idea behind this rule is that people should be able to rely on their lawyer for privacy, and so that the lawyer can construct the very best strategies for you.
5. Avoids Conflicts of Interest — Another major issue not limited to the legal profession. A lawyer cannot represent one client if this would be harmful to another client. Closely related to this is that a lawyer cannot represent you if the lawyer will be limited by responsibilities to a former client or by personal interest. For example, if representing you could harm your lawyer’s family’s real estate interests, the lawyer must decline.
6. Acts Courteously –In general, lawyers are expected to act courteously and fairly not only to clients, but also to other attorneys, professionals, opposing parties and the court. Also remember that if your lawyer acts courteously to the opposition, this does not necessarily mean that she thinks your case is weak. Professionalism dictates that behaving this way is more than likely to help your own cause.
A great way to think of ethics is to think of how we would behave if no one was watching us. However, be aware that every state bar has an ethics committee that does watch the activities of its lawyers. Lawyers who breach these rules face possible suspension or even censure. If you personally observe a lawyer not behaving by these standards, do not hesitate to report it. This will serve to improve the profession and your trust in it.