Now and then one of the issues that comes up in a lawsuit is “who runs the case?” Buffington Law Firm is an Orange County Business and Trust litigation firm, and our cases often involve complex areas of law well beyond the common experience of non-lawyers and even many practicing attorneys. Nonetheless, we occasionally on rare occasions have meetings with prospective clients in which the clients will inform us that they would like to ghostwrite most of the pleadings, conduct most of the discovery, and so forth and simply have one of our lawyers sign off on the client’s work. Often this is coupled with words to the effect that “I am familiar with the law. People tell me that I should have gone to law school and become an attorney…” (That is an actual quote from a lawsuit that our Firm successfully handled not long ago.)
A few law firms will even agree to this kind of arrangement, but few do, and Buffington Law Firm never does. In our universal experience an attorney is doing the client no favor by this sort of arrangement. Lawyers are required to stand behind their work and act competently, and it is inappropriate for an attorney to delegate most forms of legal work to a client. [See Cal. Rule of Professional Conduct 3-110 (Duty of Competence)]. Certainly clients must be deeply involved in deriving the facts of a case and in responding to discovery. After all, it is usually the client that “lived through” whatever the events are that gave rise to the business or trust dispute. At least in the early stages of a case, the client knows the facts of the case better than the attorney. Applying the law to the case to construct a lawsuit in order to achieve the objectives of the client is the duty of the attorney.
The California Rules of Professional Conduct set forth what decisions in a case are to be made by the client and which by the attorney. For example, it is always the client’s decision whether to make an offer of settlement, accept an offer of settlement from the other side, or generally whether to settle the case. Further, an attorney has a duty to promptly convey an offer of settlement to the client so that the client may exercise this right. [Cal. Rule of Professional Conduct 3-510]. Whether to appeal a case after trial is also exclusively the decision of the client. Attorneys have a duty to reasonably communicate with the client and keep him or her “reasonably informed about significant developments” relating to the case. [Cal. Rule of Professional Conduct 3-500]. Good attorneys never keep their clients in the dark.
On the other hand, sometimes clients seek to micromanage the lawsuit in various ways. For example, sometimes a client will demand that his or her lawyer “get tough” with the other side’s attorney by refusing to grant an extension of time to the other side to respond to discovery requests, enter into reasonable stipulations, or other scheduling issues. This is inappropriate and if a lawyer were to agree to this it would constitute unprofessional conduct that might well be subject to sanctions by the Court as discovery misconduct. At the very least, Judges take a dim view of this kind of behavior and it can make a terrible impression on a Judge when this occurs to the possible detriment of the case. Tactical decisions of this sort are the attorney’s to make and good attorneys insist upon making these decisions.
What all of this really means is that it is the client’s job to tell the attorney what he or she wishes to achieve in the lawsuit, and the attorney’s job to manage the lawsuit to achieve these objectives. Certainly the client can and should work with the attorney on things such as budgetary limitations so that the attorney understands the client’s financial limitations in supporting the litigation. As the client’s objectives change the attorney should be responsive to this. The vast majority of successful lawsuits adhere to the principles briefly explained in this blog article and we hope that you have found it to be helpful.
If you believe that you have a prospective lawsuit, do not hesitate to contact our firm at 714-450-4568 for a free legal consultation. There is never any obligation and we promise that you will speak directly with one of our experienced business and trust litigation attorneys to discuss your case.