The Risk Manager, Summer 2006
In their June 19, 2006 National Law Journal article “Enlightening Clients” Mary Kay Kisthardt and Barbara Handschu outline a comprehensive approach for keeping divorce clients well informed. The authors advocate demystifying the process with the following advice:
- Be sure the client understands what retainers are and what they cover. Explain in the letter of engagement as appropriate:
- when replenishment of a retainer is required;
- whether an additional retainer is required for trial preparation;
- that an ‘evergreen’ retainer requires the client to pay bills as they accrue with the initial retainer covering final billing; and
- that failure to comply with the retainer requirement during pending litigation will cause the lawyer to apply to the court for permission to withdraw.
- Describe the divorce litigation process to the client orally and in writing. Provide the client an outline of the process if that is helpful. Give the client articles and publications on divorce litigation. The authors recommend the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers’ Divorce Manual: A Client Handbook.
- Copy clients on all documents regarding their case including pleadings, court orders, and all correspondence. Send the client copies of memorandums for the file concerning any in-person, telephone, and e-mail communications with the courts, opposing counsel, and third parties. When forwarding documents be sure to include an explanatory letter or note to ensure client understanding. If the forwarded document requires input from the client, be sure to make that clear to the client in the forwarding letter or note.
- Promptly return client telephone calls. Establish an office procedure in which a paralegal or legal secretary returns the client’s call when the lawyer is unavailable. That person should coordinate a time with the client and lawyer when the lawyer will return the call.
- Be cautious in forecasting how expeditiously the matter will proceed. Do not underestimate the time required thereby raising the client’s expectations and corresponding anxiety when the process takes longer.
- If feasible, designate a paralegal or other member of the office to provide the client regular case status updates. Be sure to explain this arrangement to the client and the billing considerations; i.e., lawyer hourly fee or paralegal hourly fee.
- Inform the client about alternative dispute resolution procedures applicable to the matter. These procedures are often helpful in cases involving domestic violence.