Here is a handy checklist of basic questions to ask before you hire an attorney:
- What experience do you have in the field of law that I require you for?
- What was the outcome in previous cases you handled, which were similar in nature to mine?
- What are the possible scenarios in the outcome of my case?
- Are there any alternative actions I could take in resolving my case?
- How long do you think it would take to resolve my case?
- Is mediation or arbitration a possible alternative and would you recommend it?
- What are your rates and how will I be billed?
- How often will I be billed and do you offer a means to pay the bill off?
- What do you see the total bill coming to including all fees and expenses. Is this a ballpark figure or will this be the total?
- Would you be inclined to go for a reasonable settlement or do you see an aggressive and unyielding approach as being the way to go?
- Will there be other people beside you working on my case?
- Would it be possible for junior attorneys or paralegals in your office to handle the administrative tasks at a lower rate?
- Would you be willing to take the case on a contingent fee basis i.e. if you are suing for a cash settlement – the attorney gets a percentage of the settlement?
Your attorney must represent you ethically and within the bounds of the law.
Your attorney has rules of professional conduct that he is obliged to follow. Attorneys set themselves high standards and have a proud history of maintaining those standards.
Your attorney must have knowledge of the law applicable to your case and must communicate the progress of the case to you in a judicious and effective manner.
Your attorney cannot represent both you and another client who has legal interests that conflict with yours. While your attorney is there to offer you what they consider to be the best course of action regarding your situation, they are obliged to follow whatever directions you give them. This assumes that those directions are not against the law.
Subject to some very limited exceptions any communication between yourself and your attorney are confidential. No information provided by you can be disclosed to a third party without your consent.
Any monies or property held by your attorney on your behalf must be kept separate to his or her own assets and must be returned (subject to terms and conditions) to you when you ask for it.
What is attorney-client privilege
When you speak with an attorney about a legal matter, your communications with that attorney are privileged. This means that subject to some very limited exceptions, and unless you grant permission, your attorney can’t disclose to a third party any information that you provided.
What can you do if you are unhappy with your attorney
If you are unhappy with your attorney you have the right to fire him or her at any time. However, remember that your attorney is entitled to payment for any work they may have done up to the point of their dismissal. They are also entitled to keep any files pertaining to the case they worked on until payment for their services has been made.
The judge will ask you for the reason you dismissed your attorney/ advocate. Should you dismiss your attorney/ advocate close to a trial date and you haven’t made alternative arrangements as to representation, the judge may, if he thinks it is a delaying tactic, force you to represent yourself.
What can you do if you feel your attorney has improperly handled your case?
It is part of the function of the different law societies to protect the public against unprofessional and irresponsible members of the attorney’s profession. The law societies set a high standard of professional conduct for their members to adhere to and are prepared to investigate any complaints levelled at it’s members.
Attorneys are bound by a strict professional code and are proud of the high standards they set themselves and the low incidence of disciplinary action that has been required by the various provincial law societies.
Confirm which provincial law society you need to contact. The various law societies contact details can be found by going to their websites, details of which can be found from the links on the right hand side.
Before going to the council confirm that your complaint is valid by going through the facts. It is often a lack of communication or a misunderstanding that leads to complaints being lodged. Contact your attorney, either by visiting him/her or send them a letter (registered post preferably) regarding your query. Ask for a full report regarding your enquiry, as an attorney is obliged to report to their client on the progress in a matter. Give them a reasonable amount of time to reply before contacting the law society.
Your complaint should be submitted in the form of an affidavit. This can be done by taking your statement to a commissioner of oaths, a police officer or another attorney. Examples of forms that can be used, can be found on some of the law societies web sites.
Links to these websites can be found here www.attorneys.co.za//law_links.asp
Please remember that while the various Councils have the power to ensure that attorneys observe proper standards of professional conduct they do not have the power to order an attorney to pay compensation. You would need to consult another attorney about taking your grievance to a court of law. This was only a rough guide as to what your options are and further details can be found at the web sites of the various law societies
If you lose a case that your attorney said was a sure winner
Any attorney who says that a case is a sure winner and cannot be lost should be steered clear of.
While you can be sure that most attorneys will do all they can to try and win your case, an honest attorney, no matter how good they are, has to admit that there is always a chance of a lawsuit or case being lost.
However, If you do feel that your attorney may guilty of malpractice in the handling of your case, you may have recourse with the relevant law society. Remember though, that you will probably have to retain the services of another attorney, should you wish to sue for damages.
What can you do if you feel that your attorney has charged too much?
Review your fee agreement and the bills your attorney has sent you. All charges should be consistent with your agreement. If you have questions about particular charges, ask your attorney. Frequently, charges make more sense after a brief explanation.
If you can’t resolve your questions regarding fees and charges with your attorney you may want to have your bill reviewed by an attorney organization that will evaluate it for fairness.