The duty to communicate is essential to every aspect of the fiduciary duty a lawyer owes to the client. Proper communication ensures that we are identifying and serving our clients’ interests. It’s possible today to be technically “available” to clients 24-7. But how much availability is required, and where is the line? That’s the subject of a recent ethics case against a Texas attorney, resulting in sanctions for unreasonably ignoring a client.
The Texas Commissioner for Lawyer Discipline’s petition alleged that the attorney failed to file a lawsuit on behalf of his client and failed to respond to the client’s requests for information. According to the petition, the client called, emailed, and visited the attorney many times to discuss the case he wanted to file, no avail. Ultimately, the client fired the attorney and was forced to file his own suit, to avoid missing a deadline.
According to the attorney, he met with the client “at least 10 times, probably more,” and did not respond to all of the client’s calls and emails because he had no news to report and thought the case had little chance of success.
The trial court and appellate court both found sufficient evidence that the attorney failed to satisfy his professional responsibilities to keep his client reasonably informed about the status of his case and to promptly comply with reasonable requests for information. The attorney was hit with a 90 day suspension.
While this is an extreme example, it serves as a reminder that failing to keep clients in the loop can result in disaster. The duty to communicate with clients is simple enough. What’s difficult is carrying out that duty in real life, and in an age where clients may expect instant answers. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you navigate the client communication waters:
- Reach out required. Make sure to keep the client informed regarding:
- Decisions requiring client consent.
- Waiver of a client fiduciary obligation, especially confidentiality and conflicts of interest.
- Assistance you are not qualified to provide.
- Common courtesy. When the client calls requesting information, make sure to respond in a timely manner. What constitutes “timely” will depend on the urgency of the question, your own availability and preference, and, ultimately, on what would ethically be considered a reasonable response time.
- Dish about the details. Rule 1.4 also requires that some issues be explained to the client. Ideally, the client should have enough information to participate intelligently in decisions about the objectives of the case, and the means by which they will be accomplished.
- Personal preference. Work-life boundaries are unique to each attorney. If you are not one who likes to respond to non-emergency e-mails at 2 A.M. or on weekends, be clear about your availability from the beginning of the representation and stick to these limits. Explain to clients how to best contact you, and how quickly they should expect a response.
- Good housekeeping. Consider an internal system whereby you provide updates to clients at regular intervals, such as every 60 days. Even if there are no developments to report in a case, this lets the client know you are monitoring the situation, and their case is important to you. It will also help to avoid any lack of communication allegations in the future.