I magine the following scenario: You know something is wrong with your computer, but you don’t know what; so you bring it to your local electronics store for repair. The salesperson tells you he will try to fix your problem—although he can’t guarantee a satisfactory result.
He can’t tell you how much the fix is going to cost, but he is certain it will be expensive. He also can’t tell you what process will be involved in trying to address your problem. Instead, he will try a few things, and then make decisions about additional steps to take. He throws about several technical terms, but as you have limited computer experience, it’s almost impossible to understand what he is trying to explain to you.
When you finally leave the store, you hope you have left your computer in the hands of a skilled professional who knows what he’s doing and intends to charge a reasonable amount for his work; but you are far from convinced everything will turn out that way. Unfortunately, all too often, this kind of situation also exists in an attorney/client relationship. You place your dilemma in what you hope will be competent hands, even without a clear understanding of the problem or the potential solutions.
The Right Lawyer for You
To start, how do you select the right attorney for your particular requirements? Whether you are looking for a lawyer, doctor or someone to fix a problem at your house, it goes without saying that you will probably get the best results when you work with someone who has specific experience in your area of need. Think about it: The best allergist in the world can probably do little to fix the torn ligaments in your knee.
When confronted by a lawsuit, you will first want to consider whether a legal claim against you might be covered by any liability insurance you have in effect. When in doubt, it’s always safest to give written notice to any insurers who might provide coverage or protection, and provide them copies of any pleadings that may be served or forwarded to you.
If your problem is one against which you are insured, the insurer will generally assume the obligation to select legal counsel to defend you. Insurance companies, which tend to be sophisticated consumers of legal services, are acutely aware of the need to retain counsel who can deliver quality services at a reasonable price. Therefore, it is extremely likely you will be defended by an attorney with considerable experience in the type of claim presented.
For example, if the claim is a sale-and-disposal issue, any lawyer retained for you by an insurance company is likely to be familiar with the applicable statutory and case law, and probably will have handled many similar issues in the past. Even if your claim or problem is not one for which your insurance provides protection, a specialty insurer may still be a good source of information about skilled attorneys who routinely practice in the area of concern.
Another good source of information can be a trade group or association. Many states have associations that serve the interests of their members, often by providing forms, proposed lease documents, checklists, handbooks or guide books, and even publications or articles addressing legal issues. These kinds of groups can often serve as an introduction to lawyers with a background particularly suited to your needs.
Finally, your friends (and even your competitors) in the selfstorage community can be a good source of information. You and the facility across town may compete fiercely for customers, but you are likely to share similar legal problems and challenges. Informal contacts and discussions may lead you to an attorney who has previously done a good job in responding to the kind of issue you now face.
Fee Agreements and Understandings
Whether in the context of business planning, litigation, criminal defense or any other legal issue, once you have identified an appropriate lawyer or law firm to assist you, how do you develop the best possible relationship? How do you gain confidence that you are working with a skilled attorney who is charging reasonably for his services?
Too often, experienced business people feel awkward and uncomfortable requesting specific information about costs, benefits and alternatives to a proposed course of legal action. An owner who would request multiple competitive bids for a construction project and extensively analyze the scope of the planned construction before making any decisions somehow ends up in a relationship with a law firm in which the scope of representation is poorly articulated, the alternatives are not discussed, and the ultimate price tag is a complete unknown.
Your relationship with a lawyer is always going to be based, in significant measure, on your confidence in that person’s skills, judgment and ethical conduct. However, you have every right to understand exactly what you are going to receive and what you will be expected to pay. For many types of legal engagements, it will not be possible to identify upfront each and every step that may need to be taken. But you have the right to know the manner in which you will be charged for services, the lawyer’s best understanding and estimate of the steps that will likely be necessary, and the risks of success and failure associated with the proposed course of action.
No client should ever feel his legal issues have been simply abandoned to a lawyer. The best and most successful relationships are built on open communication, consultation and joint decision-making. Trust and confidence result when a lawyer and client work together toward a specific goal. To this end, most states have adopted rules of professional conduct that address the obligations owed by a lawyer to his clients. These generally require that a lawyer keep his client reasonably informed about the status of his case and clearly communicates the basis of the rate or fee he plans to charge, preferably in writing, at the outset of the representation.
When entering a relationship with a law firm, insist on a clear understanding of what the lawyer plans to do and how he plans to charge for the work. Make sure you are regularly updated about the progress of the work being done and consulted about evolving issues of strategy. Use your attorney as a tool or resource, but remain involved in the process from start to finish.
In the legal world, iron-clad guarantees are hard to come by. Select an appropriate attorney with substantial and specific experience with the issues confronting you. Once you have openly discussed compensation and executed an appropriate fee agreement, you will be well on the way to achieving the one thing that should be guaranteed in the lawyer/client relationship: a high level of confidence that you have a good lawyer working as a true member of your team.
Joshua T. Kutchin is a director with Fanning, Harper & Martinson, P.C., in Dallas. A graduate of the University of Texas School of Law in Austin, Texas, Mr. Kutchin specializes in litigation in the areas of bad faith, commercial, construction, and general, premises and products liability. For more information, call 214.369.1300 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.