The Role of Your Lawyer 

The role of your lawyer is to be your legal advocate, that is, to provide you with competent legal representation and act in your best interest to assist you in the resolution of your legal problem.  Attorneys are also trustees of the legal system, and have responsibilities to maintain public confidence in the system and defend its integrity. What follows is a brief discussion of some of the relevant issues that relate to the attorney/client relationship.

Licensure 

Lawyers must be licensed to practice law in the state in which they are practicing.  Sometimes lawyers can obtain permission from a court to practice in a state on a given case in which they are not licensed to practice.  Lawyers who practice in Federal Court must be licensed to practice in the federal court system.

Anyone who holds himself or herself out as an attorney without having a license is engaging in the “unauthorized practice of law,” and is subject to contempt of court proceedings, which could result in incarceration.  Persons who are not licensed attorneys are prohibited from receiving compensation for legal services.

Attorneys must also be in “good standing” in order to practice of law, that is, they must be properly registered and not be suspended or barred from practicing law.  In Illinois, every attorney is assigned an “Attorney Registration Number” when they are licensed. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (the ARDC), 800-252-8048, has a list of attorneys licensed to practice law in Illinois.

Rules of Professional Conduct

Lawyers practicing law in Illinois are required to follow Rules of Professional Conduct established by the Illinois Supreme Court. Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) Supreme Court Rules – Miscellaneous Rules. 

Among the most prominent of these rules are the following: 

Scope of Representation - an attorney shall not represent a client in a legal matter that the attorney knows or reasonably should know that the lawyer is not competent to provide representation. 

  • After accepting employment on behalf of a client, a lawyer shall not thereafter delegate to another lawyer (not in the lawyer’s firm) the responsibility for performing or completing that employment, without the client’s consent.
  • A lawyer shall abide by the client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation, except that the lawyer cannot counsel a client or assist a client in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent, nor can the lawyer present or threaten to present criminal charges or professional disciplinary actions to obtain an advantage in a civil case.
  • A lawyer shall not file a suit, conduct a defense, delay a trial, or take other action on behalf of a client when the lawyer knows (or reasonably should know) that such action would serve merely to harass or maliciously injure another.
  • A lawyer may not advance a claim or defense the lawyer knows is unwarranted under existing law, except that the lawyer may advance such claim or defense if it can be supported by a good-faith argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.

Diligence and Communication - a lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client, and shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

Fees - a lawyer’s fees shall be reasonable, what is reasonable being determined by a variety of factors including the time and labor involved, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly, the fee customarily charged in the locality for similar legal services, the experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer, and whether the fee is fixed or contingent.  When the lawyer has not regularly represented the client, the basis or rate of the fee shall be communicated to the client before or within a reasonable time after commencing the representation.

Contingent fees are fees that depend on or are conditional on the outcome of the case.  A contingent fee shall be in writing and shall state the method by which the fee is to be determined.  This includes the percentage or percentages that shall accrue to the lawyer in the event of settlement, trial or appeal, and a statement of the litigation and other expenses which are to be deducted from the recovery.  Contingent fee arrangements should also state whether these are payable before or after the assessment of the percentage accruing to the lawyer. Contingent fee arrangements are prohibited in domestic relations cases and criminal cases.

If a client dismisses a lawyer during the time a case is ongoing, the attorney is entitled to be compensated for the value of the attorney’s services until he or she was dismissed.

Confidentiality - a lawyer shall not, during or after the termination of the professional relationship with the client, use or reveal a confidence or secret of the client known to the lawyer unless the client consents. 

There are two exceptions to this rule:  First, a lawyer has the duty to reveal information about a client to the extent it appears necessary to prevent the client from committing an act that would result in death or serious bodily harm.  Second, a lawyer may use or reveal confidences or secrets (1) when required by law or court order, (2) when the client has indicated an intention to commit a crime other than in the circumstance described in above, or (3) when necessary to establish or collect a lawyer’s fee or to defend the lawyer against an accusation of wrongful conduct. 

Conflict of Interest - a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client will be directly adverse to another client, unless the lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not adversely affect the relationship with another client and each client consents after disclosure.  Similarly, a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client or to a third person, or by the lawyer’s own interests, unless the lawyer reasonably believes the representation will not be adversely affected and the client consents after disclosure. 

Termination of the Attorney/Client Relationship - There are a variety of circumstances in which the attorney-client relationship may be terminated.  These include the following:  (1) where the lawyer is discharged by the client (for any reason); (2) by the lawyer, where the client insists on (a) presenting a claim or defense that is not warranted under existing law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification, or reversal of existing law, or (b) seeks to pursue an illegal course of conduct or (c) seeks to pursue a course of conduct prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct, or (d) engages in other conduct that makes it unreasonably difficult for the lawyer to carry out the representation effectively, or (e) fails to pay the attorney’s expenses or fees. 

If permission for a lawyer’s withdrawal from representation is required by the court, the lawyer shall not withdraw from the representation without the court’s permission. In any event, the lawyer shall not withdraw until the lawyer has taken reasonable steps to avoid foreseeable prejudice to the rights of the client, including giving due notice, allowing time for the employment of other counsel, and delivering to the client all papers and property to which the client is entitled.  A lawyer who withdraws from employment shall refund promptly any part of a fee paid in advance that has not been earned. 

Common Sense Tips in Dealing With Your Lawyer 

  • Choose a lawyer whom you determine is competent, is interested in your case, and with whom you believe you will be able to develop a good working relationship.
  • Determine before you retain the attorney what his or her fees will be, whether you can afford to pay the fees, and whether it is in your best interest to spend the money for an attorney to help you in your case.
  • Define your objectives in pursuing or defending a legal claim. Communicate those objectives to your lawyer.
  • Inform the attorney early about any circumstance that may be relevant to your case, including documents, witnesses, and/or other information that might help the attorney analyze the strength and weaknesses of your claim. 
  • If feasible, keep a separate file of the court documents, correspondence, witnesses and other material relating to the case.
  • Make sure the attorney has your current address (home and work), phone number(s), e-mail address, etc., and let the attorney know promptly of any circumstances that might interfere with meetings, mandatory court dates, etc.
  • Realize the function of your lawyer is not necessarily to tell you what you want to hear, but to assess your legal problem in a competent and realistic fashion, and to provide you with the options available to resolve the problem.