Ethics in Brief

Ethics in Brief is designed to present ethical issues that practitioners might well face on a daily basis. It is a service of the Legal Ethics Committee of the San Diego County Bar Association.

Communication with Clients — Utmost Importance

California attorneys are constantly reminded that the number one reason for complaints to the state bar about attorneys is the failure to respond to requests for information from clients. Why? Think about it.

Besides avoiding problems with the state bar by violating the California Rules of Professional Conduct, what does good communication do for you and your law practice?

  1. Fosters good relations with your client;
  2. can often provide you with additional information you weren’t aware of from the client and preempt problems down the road;
  3. can lead to additional referrals because you have stayed in communication; and,
  4. perhaps most important of all, it is one of the few things we can single-handedly control.

We can’t control what the court will do. We can’t control what opposing counsel will do. We can’t control how events can change things. We can, however, control how often we pick up the phone to call a client or write an email. We can also strive to control how our staff interacts with our clients by making sure they are in the loop on the cases, including knowing deadlines and court appearances approaching.

Setting aside for the moment these considerations that likely just fall in the realm of good business practices (which by the way, failure to know good business practices is another high-on-the-list reasons for state bar complaints) what are the rules?

California Rules of Professional Conduct (CRPC) Rule 3-500 requires that we keep our clients “reasonably informed about significant developments relating to the employment or representation.” The rule goes on to state that this includes “promptly complying with reasonable requests for information and copies of significant documents when necessary . . .” (emphasis added).

Rule 3-510 requires the communication of settlement offers along with “all terms and conditions of any offer made to the client in a criminal matter; and all amounts, terms, and conditions of any written offer of settlement made to client in all other matters.” Again, the rules state this will be done “promptly.”

These communications must be made within the current rules. We all know that we must maintain our communications confidential. To drive this point home, both the Business and Professions Code 6068(e)(1) states we must “maintain inviolate the confidence, and at every peril to himself or herself to preserve the secrets, of his or her client,” and CRPC 3-100 restates it by referencing B&P §6068 and stating information can only be revealed with “informed consent of the client.”

In these days of hacking, cyber-thefts and malware we are responsible for taking reasonable steps toward preserving our client’s confidential communications. One step is discussing it with your client and placing it in your retainer agreement that your client’s emails are not always confidential. For example, the use of a company email when the company’s policies allow for their access to employees' emails calls for your client to set up a separate email for you to communicate with the client confidentially.

We all have experienced pesky and annoying clients. But the rules don’t provide an exception as to those clients. Seldom does procrastination as to your communication make it any better. The rules require your “prompt” communications with your client, good business practices dictate it and avoidance of state bar problems make it an excellent practice. We should all endeavor to lower the lack of communication from the top reasons for state bar complaints.

-- Michael Crowley

**No portion of this summary is intended to constitute legal advice. Be sure to perform independent research and analysis. Any views expressed are those of the author only and not of the SDCBA or its Legal Ethics Committee.**