What You Should Expect From a Lawyer

If you're dissatisfied with your lawyer, you likely have questions about what a lawyer is supposed to do and whether your complaints are reasonable.

By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

The four responsibilities of a lawyer are to communicate with the client, provide competent legal representation, practice law ethically, and be upfront about fees. Unfortunately, most complaints people have with lawyers fall into one of these four categories, and having more than one problem isn't all that uncommon.

In this article, you'll learn what you can expect from your lawyer and get tips on hiring and working with a lawyer.

What to Expect From a Lawyer at the Initial Consultation

When you initially retain counsel, your lawyer should explain the options available in your legal matter, discuss strategy, and provide a timeline for important events. Before agreeing to retain your lawyer, you'll want to feel confident in the attorney's ability to competently advocate on your behalf.

How to Know If Your Lawyer Is Working for You

If you don't know what's happening in your lawsuit, you might assume you have a bad lawyer when your attorney is actually doing a great job. Communication problems create tension in all types of relationships, including between an attorney and a client, and a lawyer who doesn't communicate case progress invariably increases your stress.

How to Ask Your Lawyer About Your Case

At the initial meeting, you can proactively circumvent common issues by asking whether you should contact the office by phone or email. Also, ask how long it should take to return phone calls and answer your questions.

Remember that the lawyer might not always respond as quickly as you'd like. For instance, it's common to hear less frequently from a lawyer who is in trial. However, the office staff should be able to answer simple questions and assure you that the office is handling your case appropriately.

Find out how to hire the right attorney.

Your Right to Attorney Competence

It's a big shock to most people that there is no guarantee that your lawyer will do a good job. Bar associations tasked with monitoring attorneys go after lawyers who steal or violate specific ethical rules but don't target lawyers who aren't very good.

Part of the reason is that what constitutes a "good job" is somewhat relative. For instance, a client might expect an acquittal in a criminal case. However, other private criminal attorneys might consider a reduction from a felony to a misdemeanor charge a job well done.

If your lawyer makes a mistake that no reasonable attorney would have made and you lose money because of it, you could have a malpractice case against your lawyer. The mistake can be a failure to do something, such as not filing a lawsuit on time, or doing something the lawyer should not have done, such as representing a business in bankruptcy while representing an investor negotiating to buy the business.

Malpractice suits, unfortunately, are expensive to bring and tough to win. For more information, see Suing Your Lawyer for Malpractice.

Your Lawyer Should be Ethical

Each state has ethical laws that bind lawyers. Commonly, these rules require lawyers to:

  • represent their clients with undivided loyalty
  • keep their clients' confidences
  • represent their clients within the bounds of the law, and
  • put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Each state has a lawyer disciplinary agency to enforce these rules. The agency can impose monetary fines, require the lawyer to make restitution (such as return stolen money), suspend a lawyer's license to practice law, or disbar the attorney. Disbarment is exceedingly rare and usually reserved for lawyers who have committed serious crimes or have a long record of stealing from clients.

You Should Understand the Legal Fees

When you hire a lawyer, it's important that your fee agreement is in writing and that you understand it. It's a simple way to avoid a common cause of client contention—the legal bills.

Here's a list of common complaints:

  • My bill is too high and is not what we agreed to.
  • My bill isn't itemized. I have no idea what my lawyer claims to have done to earn it.
  • My attorney did a terrible job, and I don't want to pay a big bill.
  • My attorney billed me at the lawyer's rate when a paralegal did most of the work.
  • My attorney padded the bill by billing 30 minutes for every two-minute phone call, even when I called to protest earlier overbilling.

States such as California require a written retainer agreement that discloses the billing system and charges. Even if your state doesn't require a written agreement, it's a good idea to insist on one.

The agreement should specify how often you will be billed and require the lawyer to give you an itemized statement so you understand the charges. If you've agreed to pay your lawyer a contingency fee (the lawyer collects only if you win), be sure you know exactly how the fee is calculated and who pays for costs that arise while the lawsuit is in progress.

For more information, see Attorney's Fees: The Basics.

Even if you follow our tips for developing a good working relationship, you might still find yourself at odds with your attorney. If you feel your lawyer is not serving your best interests, read What to Do When You're Mad at Your Lawyer for additional help.