Statement of Client’s Rights and Responsibilities: Understanding your rights as a client

Recently, I was invited by a therapist to join her and one of her patients during a session (with the patient’s consent, of course). My role was to be that of a consultant who would provide information and answer questions. I gladly accepted the opportunity, on the condition that it was clear to the patient that she would not be hiring me as her attorney to represent her.

I met with the therapist and “Mary” (not her real name) the next day, having learned that Mary had a case involving custody and child-support. One issue concerning Mary was her lawyer; she had one, but had doubts about how the attorney was handling her case.

One question I asked was whether he had provided Mary with the Statement of Client’s Rights and Responsibilities. Mary said, “No,” unaware that such a thing existed.

What is this document, and does it matter if a lawyer gives it to clients?

According to the New York Codes, Rules and Regulations’s Procedure for Attorneys in Domestic Relations Matters, “This Part shall apply to all attorneys who, on or after Nov. 30, 1993, undertake to represent a client in a claim, action or proceeding, or preliminary to the filing of a claim, action or proceeding, in either Supreme Court or Family Court, or in any court of appellate jurisdiction, for divorce, separation, annulment, custody, visitation, maintenance, child support, or alimony, or to enforce or modify a judgment or order in connection with any such claims, actions or proceedings.”

Courts have held that attorneys cannot collect their fees if they have failed to follow the rules regarding the statement or provide a written retainer agreement that includes certain information. Lawyers may even have to return fees that clients have paid.

You can read the statement in full at http://www.nycourts.gov/divorce/part1400.shtml. Here is some of what you will find:

• You are entitled to a written retainer agreement which must set forth, in plain language, the nature of the relationship and the details of the fee arrangement. At your request, and before you sign the agreement, you are entitled to have your attorney clarify in writing any of its terms, or include additional provisions.

• You may refuse to enter into any fee arrangement that you find unsatisfactory.

• Your attorney may not request a fee that is contingent on the securing of a divorce or on the amount of money or property that may be obtained.

• Your attorney may not request a retainer fee that is nonrefundable. That is, should you discharge your attorney, or should your attorney withdraw from the case, before the retainer is used up, he or she is entitled to be paid commensurate with the work performed on your case and any expenses, but must return the balance of the retainer to you. However, your attorney may enter into a minimum fee arrangement with you that provides for the payment of a specific amount below which the fee will not fall based upon the handling of the case to its conclusion.

• You are entitled to receive a written, itemized bill on a regular basis, at least every 60 days.

• You are expected to review the itemized bills sent by counsel, and to raise any objections or errors in a timely manner. Time spent in discussion or explanation of bills will not be charged to you.

• You are entitled to be kept informed of the status of your case, and to be provided with copies of correspondence and documents prepared on your behalf or received from the court or your adversary.

• You are entitled to make the ultimate decision on the objectives to be pursued in your case, and to make the final decision regarding the settlement of your case.

As a client, you have rights. You should wonder about a lawyer who doesn’t share them with you.

New York City and Long Island-based divorce mediator and collaborative divorce lawyer Lee Chabin helps clients end their relationships respectfully and without going to court. Contact him at lee_chabin@lc-mediate.com, (718) 229–6149, or go to http://lc-mediate.com/. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lchabin.

Disclaimer: All material in this column is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.