Week 2: Ending and beginning an attorney-client relationship
October 22nd, 2012 by Briana Cummings
This week we lost one client and gained two.
Ending the attorney-client relationship
Our co-counsel and his client could not resolve their dispute about the fee agreement. Our co-counsel (lead counsel on the case) decided to withdraw, and my partner (who only just recently joined the case) decided to dissociate from the case before he did so, so that she would not then be left on the hook as the client’s only counsel on record. Otherwise, with only two months left until trial, the judge would likely insist she stay on the case.
Two important lessons from this whole episode:
- When deciding whether to take a case, be as careful as possible about avoiding entering an attorney-client relationship with someone you might foresee personal conflict with. I’m not sure how exactly one can vet a prospective client in this regard, but it might be worth, at minimum, meeting with them in person, getting a feel for their personality, talking at length about your fee arrangement, and looking into their background before signing any agreement with them.
- Be very very careful with your “bedside manner.” The breakdown in the attorney-client relationship in this instance was not so much due to a technical flaw in the fee agreement as it was to the client’s feeling that his lawyer disrespected him. Much like patients tend to want to feel like active participants in decisions about their medical care, I suspect most legal clients want to feel like valued participants in decisions about their case. When they don’t, they are probably more likely to view their lawyers with suspicion and mistrust.
Beginning the attorney-client relationship
Meanwhile, two more cases came through the door. The first was from the court clerk’s office, which sent us two prisoners’ section 1983 civil rights cases. Both prisoners had the unusual distinction of being deemed by the court to deserve count-appointed counsel. (There is no absolute right to counsel in civil cases — it is at the court’s discretion whether to appoint you one, and the court can only do so if it decides that there exist some “exceptional circumstances” in your case that warrant a government-funded attorney.) The partner told me to choose one of the cases to take on, so that I could get some trial experience. I spent the day reading the documents filed in each case to decide which looked like it had more merit or for some other reason was a better case to take on.
The second was an employment case. The prospective client was complaining that he was being harassed out of a job he desperately wanted to hold onto because of his supervisor’s personal and political antagonism toward him. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had given him a list of attorneys to consult, but he for some reason or other was not happy with the attorneys on the list and had come to us after finding our firm’s web site. I did an intake interview with him on Friday and will talk to the partner on Monday to discuss whether to take the case.
Meanwhile, the partner seems pretty decided to take on the suit against the restaurant that two prospective clients brought last week.