What to Expect from Your Lawyer
In your lifetime you may expect to engage a lawyer on occasions of key life events such as buying property or preparing your Will. You may also have unexpected circumstances that lead to you needing to seek legal advice. Knowing what to expect when you engage a lawyer, how fees are charged, and what to do if something goes wrong, before you head down this road can be useful. You can find a local law firm or lawyer in the Find a Lawyer Register, here.
Engaging a lawyer may start with a phone call or a visit to a local firm where you will meet the lawyer in person. This can be daunting and you can ask a trusted friend or family member to accompany you to your meeting (and it is helpful to the lawyer if you let them know you intend to bring someone with you for support). It is important to know that the lawyer may ask your support person to leave for part of the meeting if their presence seems unhelpful in communicating with you, or they need discuss confidential information with you. Your first meeting may or may not be free – so it is important that you check this when you first approach a law firm or lawyer.
In this initial meeting you will be invited to explain the circumstances that bring you to the firm, and/or tell your story. A lot of information may be received by you and it is perfectly reasonable if you want to take notes, ask the lawyer to slow down, to explain again, or better still to place it in writing for you. Once the lawyer has this initial information they will advise you on next steps.
Most lawyers charge fees for the time they spend working for you. There is usually a minimum fee requirement on scoping of what is needed to work on your matter. This may involve work such as meetings, communicating with you and others (by phone, email or letter etc), undertaking research, writing letters, lodging documents and, perhaps, representing you in meetings with other parties or in court. There are different ways a lawyer can charge you for the work they do for you – at a set amount or an hourly rate and you should discuss this with your lawyer at the first meeting. This is at the discretion of the lawyer or law firm. You should also make sure you are across when you are going to be billed and what your payments options are.
Where costs are likely to exceed $1,500, your lawyer has a duty of disclosure to provide you with a legal costs agreement for this work (and other expenses) which is an agreement or contract between you and the firm that sets out the terms and conditions of the engagement, and effectively authorises the firm to act on your behalf. This agreement also, importantly, sets out the likely costs involved in managing your matter. This allows you, before the lawyer starts working for you, to know where you stand and reduces the chance of surprises further down the track. You can read this document over at home and sign in your own time, however, your lawyer cannot commence to act for you until this agreement has been signed by you. If you sign straightaway, there is always a cooling off period with a cost agreement so you can go through the documentation again and ask questions or seek clarification. The Legal Profession Board of Tasmania has produced a useful fact sheet – Legal Costs Your Right To Know.
A lawyer’s duty
Your lawyer does not have to do everything you ask. Your lawyer has a duty to give you honest and accurate legal advice, and they do not have to do all that you ask if it contradicts their advice. This is particularly important to note if what you ask goes against their overriding duty to the courts.
A lawyer’s duties are to be courteous and honest in dealings with you. They must deliver legal services competently, diligently and as promptly as reasonably possible. They must avoid any compromise in their integrity and professional independence and comply with the rules of law.
Your rights as a client:
- Your lawyer must hold a current Australian Practising Certificate. This is their license to work for you and proof that they are covered by insurance. See the Register of Local Practising Certificates.
- You can expect that the client/lawyer relationship is covered by legal professional privilege. This means that principles have been established (bar a few exceptions) that protect you against the disclosure of communications between you and your lawyer when made for the dominant purpose of seeking or providing legal advice or for the use in anticipated legal proceedings.
- You can raise concerns. Sometime things go wrong and you may not be happy with something your lawyer has said or done. Ideally, in the first instance, raise this with your lawyer or their law firm as it may be easily resolved. If you are unable to resolve the matter, complaints can be made to the Legal Profession Board of Tasmania.
- You can change lawyers. Please note, however, that generally speaking the lawyer can retain your file until their legal costs are paid.
Your responsibilities as a client:
- It is important, and can be a time-saver, for you to be cooperative and prepared.
- Accurately provide the facts of your matter at the outset, and give full and clear instructions. Evidence and documentation is helpful, if available, to bring to the first meeting.
- Be honest and lawful. Supplying false information could lead to a lack of proper representation.
- Follow instructions (as quickly as possible) so that your lawyer can serve you efficiently. You can ask for a checklist, of what you need to provide and when, to assist you in this regard.
- Understand the fees and costs. Ask for this information if it is not supplied.
- Ask questions. The law is complex with unfamiliar terminology and processes so you can help to minimise the likelihood of misunderstandings later if you seek explanations and clarification early.
- Keep in contact with your lawyer. Agree with your lawyer on how often you will be informed of progress and by what method/s. Also inform your lawyer immediately if the circumstances of your matter or personal details change.
Finally, you can expect to trust your lawyer as their advice is based on years of experience and training. Sometimes the most appropriate course of action may not be what you want to hear but your lawyer is obliged to have your best legal interests at the forefront when working for you.