When you seek advice or representation from a lawyer, that lawyer is bound by strict standards of professional responsibility. Among other things, your lawyer must act in your best interests and keep your communications confidential. If your lawyer violates these rules, he or she can be disciplined or even face a legal malpractice suit. As the client, you have a handful of obligations to your lawyer as well.
Each state has its own ethical rules for lawyers, called the rules of professional conduct. When lawyers fail to live up to this code of conduct, the state disciplinary board can take action against them—from a simple warning to disbarment (losing the license to practice law forever). (To learn more, read our article on how to report a lawyer for ethical violations.)
Although the rules vary from state to state, there are some basic duties that lawyers often have. For example, your lawyer must:
- represent you competently, zealously, and within the bounds of the law
- keep conversations with you confidential, except in specific and rare occasions
- communicate with you in a timely and effective manner
- keep you informed of developments in your case
- obtain your approval before agreeing to a settlement or other resolution of your case
- avoid conflicts of interest, such as representing another client whose interests oppose yours
- keep your personal funds in an escrow account for you, separate from the lawyer’s own funds or other client funds, and
- return your money or property upon request, including your client file.
If your lawyer’s actions were also illegal, he or she can be criminally prosecuted. And, if your lawyer caused you to lose your case or otherwise suffer a financial loss, you can sue for legal malpractice. (For more information, see our Legal Malpractice FAQ.)
When you seek advice from an attorney about a legal matter, your private communications with your lawyer are protected by the attorney-client privilege. This means that your lawyer cannot reveal any information that you disclose to him or her in confidence, unless you give your express permission. Except for some very limited exceptions, even a court of law can’t force your lawyer to reveal the content of your discussions.
The privilege does not, however, apply to communications for the purpose of committing a crime or an act of fraud. This is called the “crime-fraud exception.” For example, if you tell your lawyer that you plan on murdering someone tomorrow, your lawyer can alert the authorities. However, the rule generally does not apply to discussions of past criminal acts, unless the purpose is to cover up the crime.
Your Role as Client
If you signed a retainer agreement when your hired your lawyer, it may include specific duties that you owe your lawyer. Because the retainer agreement is a contract, you are legally bound by its terms. In general, clients have the following duties:
- Be truthful with your lawyer.
- Cooperate with your lawyer and respond to requests for information in a timely manner.
- Attend meetings and legal proceedings, such as a deposition or mediation.
- Be courteous to your lawyer and his or her team.
- Don’t ask your lawyer to do anything illegal or unethical.
- Pay your legal bills in a timely manner.
These duties are often implied as part of the attorney-client relationship, even if you didn’t expressly agree to them in a retainer agreement.