The Client / Lawyer Relationship

By: Trudy O. Glasgow BA,
LL.B (Hons), BVC, LL.M, P.C.H.E

The relationship between the client and lawyer is a distinctive one. It is immaterial whether the two parties were acquainted before engaging in business together, graduated from the same secondary school, university or course. This relationship falls between a marriage and a business partnership. It must be built on mutual respect, trust, and regular communication.

When a client visits a lawyer’s office for the first time, both the client and the lawyer are likely to start defining the relationship in the long term by those first impressions. Was the client late for the appointment? Did the lawyer keep the client waiting for a very long time? The client, who is forty five minutes late for his or her first appointment without apology, is simply disrespectful. Similarly, if a client is waiting indefinitely, without explanation, and had an appointment, this is also in poor taste. Both parties should value each other’s time. The client must appreciate that the lawyer has other appointments; meetings, court appearances and extensive paperwork, and similarly the lawyer, that the also client has other commitments. The lawyer should reward a punctual client with being available immediately, for the set appointment.

The relationship is NOT like a small child/parent relationship. Both parties should understand the importance of each other’s role in order to make this arrangement work well. A lawyer advises a client based on the information that has been gathered in the meetings with the client, and will attempt to solve the problem or problems arising in an effective manner. The client in turn instructs the lawyer on the course of action to be taken, after receiving advice from the lawyer on the options available to resolve the legal difficulty. Therefore, sending an email demanding a lawyer acts immediately in a patronising manner, even if the lawyer does all the legal work for the company, business, family or individual is rude!

Some lawyers (and clients) are more formal than others. From the first meeting, this will be easily established by the way the lawyer addresses the client, his or her availability, ease of access and whether the lawyer prefers appointments instead of a ‘just drop by’ approach. It is important for the client and the lawyer to quickly learn each other’s rhythm especially if the client will be returning frequently for advice on his or her matter or matters.

Confidentiality is a vital dynamic in the client/lawyer relationship. The client must bear in mind that if the lawyer works with a law firm that confidentiality automatically runs to the other lawyers in the firm. The support staff will also have some information depending on their involvement, and the entire team is expected to keep all matters in absolute confidence. In some instances, the client may know one of the lawyers working in the law firm personally, or even a member of the support staff. As a result, the client may request that this individual involvement is either limited or excluded. The client’s preference would be considered but he or she would have to seek legal advice elsewhere if it is not feasible.

The client should not attempt to lead the lawyer especially when the lawyer has to consider his or her own integrity and reputation. A smart lawyer will not jeopardise his or her relationship with his or her colleagues for any client. By the same token, the client should not expect such behaviour from his or her lawyer. It is a balancing act to provide the best legal advice for a client and maintain cordial ties with the lawyer on the other side, especially in family and land matters which can become quite contentious. In essence, professionalism must rule the day , so to speak!

The role and public image of the lawyer has been distorted by some members of society. There are those who believe that his or her lawyer should be available 24/7 as the saying goes, including weekends and holidays. The truth is that lawyers have their own personal lives, responsibilities, duties and obligations possibly similar to some of their clients. Lawyers that make themselves available at any time may be setting an unrealistic precedent to their clients. It is not possible to be always available due to varying personal commitments. Clients who are continually accommodated in this manner may face disappointment if their lawyers are indisposed when they need them.

Clients should use their discretion when contacting their lawyers out of office hours. The client should question the urgency of the matter, and whether or not it can wait. If the answer is in the affirmative, then contact the lawyer during office hours. It demonstrates that the client has some consideration for the lawyer’s personal time. ¤

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