Q: How is an attorney-client relationship created?
A: Generally, persons may consult with and be represented by an attorney whenever they choose. The client is usually responsible for the fees associated with the service. When a person hires or retains a particular attorney, and the attorney agrees to represent that individual, an attorney-client relationship is created.
Q: How do I go about hiring an attorney?
A: If you need an attorney and you do not know one you would like to hire, ask for a recommendation from friends, neighbors, or others whose opinions you respect. You may also contact one of the lawyer referral services operated by county and city bar associations across the state. To locate a list of lawyer referral services in Ohio, visit www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/AttySvcs/LawyerReferral/default.asp. In selecting an attorney, you should take the same careful steps you would take when selecting another professional, such as a doctor or dentist.
Q: How can I check an attorney's qualifications?
A: Before hiring an attorney, you have the right to know that person's training and experience in dealing with cases similar to yours. Clients should ask the attorney questions about his or her education, experience and qualifications. You may also ask for references from other lawyers.
Q: How can I be sure that the attorney I plan to hire is legally licensed to practice law in Ohio, and has not had any client complaints?
A: You can find out if an attorney is licensed to practice law in Ohio by contacting the Supreme Court of Ohio's Attorney Registration Office at the Ohio Judicial Center, 65 Front St., 5th Floor, Columbus, Ohio 43215-3431; phone: (614) 387-9320, or by visiting the Court's website at www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/ (select "Attorney Information" and then "Attorney Directory"). You can also find out if the attorney has been disciplined. To find out if there are any pending disciplinary cases against an attorney, you will need to contact the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline (same contact information as above). You cannot, however, find out if there are any pending complaints against the attorney unless there has been a "probable cause" finding by the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline. Only the Supreme Court of Ohio has the authority to restrict or end an attorney's right to practice law in Ohio.
Q: What is a "consultation?"
A: The first meeting with an attorney is frequently called a "consultation." The attorney uses this meeting to evaluate the client's case, to assess whether the attorney is qualified to handle the particular case, and to determine whether the attorney can represent the client or whether some factor exists (such as a conflict of interest) that would prevent the attorney from taking the client's case. The client should use the initial consultation as an opportunity to get acquainted with the attorney; to discuss the attorney's background and training, how the attorney is to be paid, what expenses may be involved in the case, how and when the client can communicate with the attorney (e.g., personally in the office, by phone, by email or in writing); and to find out the names of all those persons who will be working on the case (e.g., paralegals, associates, etc.).
Q: What is a fee agreement?
A: A fee agreement, sometimes called a "retainer" agreement or "engagement" letter, is basically the payment contract between the attorney and the client. Fee agreements should always be requested, and should always be in writing and signed by the client and the lawyer at the time the lawyer is hired. Such an agreement should, at a minimum, set forth the specific legal services to be provided by the attorney, the amount of legal fees to be paid by the client for those services, and when payment is due. The fee agreement should also set forth how other expenses, such as court filing fees, photocopying, telephone calls, investigators, etc., are to be paid. Before signing a fee agreement, the client should read it carefully and ask questions about any provision the client doesn't understand. The client also should ask for an estimate of the total charges that will be billed, and ask for monthly billing statements and written receipts for all amounts paid to the attorney.
Q: What are the attorney's responsibilities in an attorney-client relationship?
A: The attorney's primary task is to protect the client's legal rights. Attorneys must use their best efforts on behalf of their clients, but they cannot guarantee particular results in cases. Attorneys also must observe the ethical standards set forth in Ohio's Rules of Professional Conduct.
The attorney should keep the client informed of the status of the client's legal problem, and should provide copies of all correspondence and documents prepared on the client's behalf or received from another party. An attorney may not settle the client's case without the prior approval of the client.
Q: What are the client's responsibilities in an attorney-client relationship?
A: For the attorney-client relationship to work effectively, the client must be truthful in all discussions with his or her attorney. The client must give the attorney both the favorable and unfavorable facts pertaining to the legal matter, and must provide copies of all relevant information and documents to the attorney. The attorney must be informed of any changes in the client's situation. Clients must pay in a timely manner all legal fees earned by the attorney, and any other expenses or items agreed to in the retainer or fee agreement.
Q: How is the attorney-client relationship terminated?
A: In most cases, the attorney-client relationship is ended when the legal matter is concluded. However, with certain limitations, either the client or the attorney may terminate the attorney-client relationship at any time. This should be done in writing, and in accordance with any provisions contained in the retainer or fee agreement and, for the attorney, with the Rules of Professional Conduct. The attorney is entitled to be paid for the work completed before termination. The client is entitled to a refund of any unused or unearned fees paid in advance. The client is also entitled to his or her file.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was originally prepared by Janet Green Marbley, administrator of the Clients' Security Fund of Ohio. It was updated by Gene Whetzel, general counsel for the Ohio State Bar Association.