A quick glance at the table of contents for the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct is all it takes to let you know that the client is No. 1.
The client-lawyer relationship is the premier section of the Model Rules, and it contains more than twice as many rules as the next-largest section, “Advocate.”
The emphasis on the client is well-placed and should be a reminder to all lawyers that the client should be the lawyer’s No. 1 concern, too.
Model Rules 1.1 to 1.6, in particular, focus on aspects of the client-lawyer relationship that are applicable to all attorneys. (Besides Rule 1.0, which delineates terminology, the other rules in the first section generally deal with some specific situations that many, but not all, lawyers will encounter.) A review of those six rules is always timely, so a summary of the highlights of each of those rules and comments follows.
Rule 1.1: Competence
In some cases, a lawyer must possess expertise in a particular field, but often no special training is necessary “to handle legal problems of a type with which the lawyer is unfamiliar.” If an attorney does not have the necessary competence, he may still represent a client if he can learn what is necessary with a reasonable amount of preparation. If a lawyer feels that it is necessary to contract with counsel from another firm, he should obtain consent from the client. Finally, a lawyer must keep up with changes in order to retain the proper level of competence.
Rule 1.2: Scope of representation and allocation of authority between client and lawyer
The client shall determine the objectives of the representation and be consulted about the way in which the case will be handled. The client will decide whether his matter should be settled. An attorney can’t tell a client to do something that is criminal or fraudulent, but the lawyer can discuss the legal consequences of such conduct.
Rule 1.3: Diligence
Reasonable diligence and promptness are mandatory. Procrastination is unacceptable. Solo practitioners should make sure that another lawyer is authorized to take over their affairs if they die, so that clients are not left without representation.
Rule 1.4: Communications
The attorney must communicate with the client about decisions requiring the client’s consent, the way in which the case will be handled, the status of the case, questions that the client has asked, actions that the lawyer is not legally allowed to take, and details necessary for the client to make informed decisions. Occasionally, a lawyer may withhold information if it would adversely affect the client or if there is a legal requirement to do so.
Rule 1.5: Fees
Fees must be reasonable. Reasonableness depends, among other things, on time and labor invested by the lawyer, whether the lawyer had to give up other work to take on the case, customary fees for the area, time limitations, the type of fee and the lawyer’s reputation. Fee details must be communicated to the client. Contingent-fee agreements must be in writing; some such arrangements are not allowed under the rule.
Rule 1.6: Confidentiality of information
Lawyers can’t disclose information about the case without the client’s consent or unless disclosure is allowed in order to, among other things, prevent death, harm or crime. Attorneys must make concerted efforts to prevent accidental disclosure of confidential information.
Lawyers should familiarize themselves with all aspects of all rules, including the comments. Never forget that clients are No. 1, in the Model Rules and in your practice.