Climate Change Project

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Terms of the Relationship

Attorneys advise clients that contracts for services should be clear and specific about work to be done, how much it will cost, and how to resolve disputes if the client is dissatisfied with the services. Unfortunately, legal representation contracts are usually vague about charges and the work to be done. The legal client should require that the representation agreement provide the same information as any other contract for services: the work to be done and what it should cost.

An effective client must understand the dimensions of his or her legal problems and the specific tasks that must be performed. The attorney must teach the client about the legal problem just as the physician must teach patients enough about their medical problems to allow them to make informed decisions. Simple legal services do not require a lengthy explanation, but many legal services are complex, requiring months to years of work. These services may cost the client tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A client engaging an attorney for such a prolonged relationship is entitled to considerable detail about the strategy and progress of his case.

The client must not fall into the trap of equating cheap legal services with cost-effective legal services. A client who wants the services of an experienced attorney must be prepared to pay for them. Conversely, clients should not be expected to pay for training the law firm's personnel and should refuse to do so. This happens when the client's case is transferred to a new attorney. The new attorney will have to spend time becoming familiar with the case, and the client should not have to pay for that time.

Unlike medical services, the attorney the client talks to is frequently not the person who does the client's work. What would be ghost surgery in medicine is delegation of authority in law office practice. This problem is most troublesome in large law firms. The physician client believes that he or she is buying the expertise of a senior partner but may be paying for on-the-job training for an associate just out of law school or new to the client's problem. This client-funded education is particularly inefficient because the unskilled associate usually researches the client's problem before it is reviewed by the senior partner. This ensures that the experienced attorney's ability to focus the inquiry will not reduce the hours that the client will be billed for the legal work.

The client should ask the attorney to document the information the client is given about the case: the work to be done, who will do the work and their expertise, the billing rates for various personnel, and estimated costs of the different services to be performed. The client may want to ask the attorney to draw a diagram of all the steps in resolving the legal problem. This graphic display of the chronology is effective in eliminating uncertainty about what needs to be done. This diagram should be included in the client's documentation.

In addition to the traditional bill, the client should ask for a running total for each task outlined on the legal road map. For a deposition, each month's bill should include the total of all charges relating to the deposition that have been incurred to date. The bill should also group hourly charges for the deposition together rather than presenting all the hourly charges in chronological order. If the client's road map of the case includes the various steps in a deposition, the client can reconcile the road map with the bill each month.

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