Attorney, Natalie Thorp, discuss how to get the most out of your client/attorney relationship during a family law matter. Natalie and Steve cover the following:
If you would like to speak with one of our family law attorneys, please call our office at (503) 227-0200 or visit our website at https://www.landerholmlaw.com/
Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.
Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast devoted to exploring family law topics that matter most to you. Covering a wide range of legal, personal, and family law matters, with expert analysis from skilled attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcast provides answers, clarity, and guidance towards a better tomorrow for you and your family. Here's your host, Steve Altishin.
Steve Altishin 0:32
Good morning. My name is Steve Altishin. I'm the Director of Client Partnerships here at Landerholm Family Law. And today, I'm here with Landerholm Family Law attorney, Natalie Thorpe. So before we started, Natalie, can you just brief us a little bit about yourself?
Natalie Thorp 0:48
My name is Natalie, and I am a family law attorney. I've been in the practice of family law for about three years now. I recently became an attorney. But I am happy to be here today and excited for our talk.
Steve Altishin 1:02
Well, I am too and this is a really interesting day. Because you know, a lot of times we talk about things like a subject--parenting time, custody, how to modify your plan, what is a will and a trust. But today, we're going to be a little different, because we're going to talk about a subject that can be ultra important and foundational for any of those topics and being successful in your case. And that subject is attorney client relationships--what they are, why they're so important, and how you can make the most out of them to make your case more successful. So in that light, Natalie, let's just start with a basic question. What is an attorney client relationship? And why is it so darn important?
Natalie Thorp 2:01
Well, Steve, an attorney client relationship is a relationship that can be formed either implicitly or explicitly, and we can talk about that, between an attorney and a client. It is the foundation of any case. So the better relationship that you can build with your attorney, the more efficient your case is probably going to go. And I think it's very important for people to understand how to build those relationships and what can happen if they falter. And so I think at the end of the day, attorney client relationships have a bit of a gray area, because they can be formed either explicitly or implicitly. But but at the root of the relationship is the client and the attorney, and they need to be able to be cohesive as a unit and work together to facilitate the clients need.
Steve Altishin 2:58
I'm assuming that when we talk about the formation of an attorney client relationship, it matters not only in the fact that it starts your business relationship with the person you're representing, but because of attorney rules of ethics and how they have to practice. It also forms an explicit bond and set of legal duties that you have to your client. And so you mentioned explicit, and I'm assuming that's just when someone says I'm hiring you, or signs of an agreement to hire you. But this relationship can form a little bit earlier, can't it? I mean, I'm assuming you can't form it at the neighborhood pool when your best friend's attorney is there and you're asking them a question. Or can it?
Natalie Thorp 4:11
Actually, by the rules, an attorney client relationship can form as soon as a person relies on the attorney. So if the attorney is giving legal advice, and that person has a reasonable basis to rely on that advice, that's the basis of an attorney client relationship. That's when it forms.
Steve Altishin 4:32
Well, then a good attorney would realize that.
Natalie Thorp 4:39
Steve Altishin 4:41
So let's move to, what should a client expect from an attorney once they establish their attorney client relationship? I believe one of the things that attorneys have is a duty to confidentiality, some call it privilege
Natalie Thorp 4:59
Yes. So the privilege happens as soon as the attorney client relationship is formed. So, again, when that happens is anybody's guess in some instances, right? It doesn't necessarily require a written contract. And once that relationship is formed, then the attorney has a responsibility to the client, that's when the responsibilities on the attorney, by the rule,s come into play. And so at that point, anything that the client tells the attorney--unless it's illegal, unless you're asking the attorney to do something illegal or help you to do something illegal, which falls outside of the rules--anything short of that, for the most par,t is confidential. And that means that the attorney cannot disclose that information to anybody outside of the firm, right? Like the firm is included in that if you're hiring a firm, the firm would know the the ins and outs of your case, the people in the firm working on the case. But outside of that, there's no one else that can know or that the attorney can tell the details of your case, or even that you are a client of theirs. So that's the basis of the confidentiality requirement for attorneys,
Steve Altishin 6:15
You've talked about the exception of committing a crime. So if a client comes up and says, 'Hey, hey, I need your advice, I'm gonna go rob this local store', that would not be covered?
Natalie Thorp 6:29
No. Also, it's not even just advice about that, it would be advice about how to get around something they had already done that was illegal. All of that stuff is not confidential. So if you go to your attorney, and you admit that you committed a crime, the attorney not only doesn't have to keep that secret, but in a lot of instances may be required to report what you've told them.
Steve Altishin 6:54
So this is an important part. A client, no matter what kind of case they come to you with, can rely or should be able to rely, on you not revealing that to anybody. So they can say anything they need to say or want to say to you, without having to worry about somebody finding out about it. Unless, of course, they agree to let you say something.
Natalie Thorp 7:25
Correct. But there's a general consensus in the legal field that if a crime has been committed, there's a bigger, more important issue at play than the attorney client relationship. So that's where that that comes in.
Steve Altishin 7:39
So your next duty which I know that attorneys have is a duty to provide competent representation. I mean, they have that duty by law. It's a legal duty, as opposed to maybe another type of business relationship where they should be competent, you guys are required to be competent. Is that right?
Natalie Thorp 8:04
That is true. Which means if you as an attorney, say you come out of law school, and you pass the bar, and you start practicing, and you realize all the sudden that the questions coming at you are things you've never heard before. Well you have a job to do the research and find the answer before giving advice on that issue if you don't know the answer. So that's just part of learning how to be an attorney versus learning what an attorney does, which is what's taught in school. But yes, we do have an obligation to be competent.
Steve Altishin 8:37
The other sort of thing that kind of goes along with the competence is that an attorney, I know, owes the duty to act ethically, and with reasonable diligence and promptness. And I know this is where a lot of people who see attorney's sometimes have issues come up. Can you talk a little bit about that duty of especially diligence and promptness and what that means in the basic workings of working with one of your clients?
Natalie Thorp 9:14
Well, so one of the biggest duties of an attorney is the communication between the attorney and the client. A client writes you an email, and an attorney at any given time will have a number of cases, it could be anywhere from 30 to 50. Right? They have a duty. An attorney also has a duty to have a workload that is reasonable enough that they can respond to their clients in a prompt manner. If a client writes you an email, and you don't get a response for more than a week, that's not prompt. In my practice, I'm very careful. I tell my clients as they hire me in our initial consultation that when you write me an email, I have a 24 hour turnaround time. That's just my own internal commitment to my clients, because it's important, it establishes the trust between you and the client. If a client has a pressing need, and they need to get a hold of you, they need to depend on the fact that you're going to be responsive to that need. That's what they pay you for. So I think it's important for clients to understand when they're hiring attorneys, that that's not a privilege, that is something they should be able to expect from their attorneys. And as somebody who was previously a client, before I was an attorney, I find that to be the biggest issue. I find that as a client, I recall writing emails to my attorney with concerns and if I got a response at all, it would be weeks sometimes, which is unreasonable, and it's unethical, to be very clear.
Steve Altishin 10:50
Yeah. And, you know, not only are they paying you, but they're also relying on you. I mean, they've put their future in your hands. And so the amount they're paying you, the terms they're paying, really shouldn't be a part of that equation of how quickly you're going to answer the phone to get to their question.
Natalie Thorp 11:25
Exactly. Yep. And especially as a family law attorney, these are very intense, emotional and personal issues. And so a family law attorney has to respect the fact that their clients need them to be there for them. And, while in most cases, it's not an around the clock job, sometimes that's required. And sometimes the things that are happening to a client need to come ahead of the things that are happening elsewhere in your practice. I think that's reasonable, and I think clients have a right to expect that from their attorneys.
Steve Altishin 11:56
And it's your job to do that math, and to make that decision. Because on the flip side, you may get an email about something that is not necessarily imminent. And you may have something pressing, and you need to figure out how to prioritize some of these responses. How does that go sometimes when clients come back and say, 'Well, why didn't you call me for eight hours? Or even two days? What's going on?'
Natalie Thorp 12:46
Well, I personally have not had that because I am very responsive. So it's pretty rare. I can honestly only think of one time that's ever happened. And it was with a client who the court had been stalling his case out, and I had nothing to report. And he was upset because he hadn't heard anything, and I talked to him and said, 'You know, I just don't want to charge you if I don't have anything to report'. But you know, I think that the bottom line is, if a client comes to you, as an attorney, and says, 'I don't feel like you're responsive enough', as the attorney there's a responsibility on you to to accept that, and then make a change for that client if you can.
Steve Altishin 13:29
You brought up a really interesting point, thinking about, you know, I don't want to charge you, because I think one of the duties that attorneys have also is to not charge unreasonable fees, and to really let clients know about their charging practices. And the big one, obviously, and I know some clients think this, is that the lawyers mixing my money with theirs. And we can't do that either.
Natalie Thorp 14:03
No, no. So an attorney is required, whether they're on their own or working for a firm, right-- lot of times the firm will have trust accounts--but a client's money goes into a separate trust account. And it is always the requirement that it is always kept separate and only removed from that trust account once the attorney has worked the hours, the time, and once that client has been billed for that money. So at that point, the clients get the bill, the money is removed from the trust account, and at that point is the only time the money comes out of that client's separate funds. So the clients money is never mixed until it's earned.
Steve Altishin 14:44
And could you touch a little bit about the retainer? I get a lot of questions, and they tend to be like, 'They want X amount of money. Will I ever see that money again? What happens that money?' And I think that's what you're talking about, that a retainer isn't, 'Oh, yeah, I've earned that money as soon as we hang up the phone.'
Natalie Thorp 15:14
Right. A retainer is a prepayment. It's an advanced payment for the attorney to do some work. Attorneys usually will ask for a prepayment in order to ensure that you can afford what's coming. And they will usually give you a general estimate of what they believe the cost of your case will be, but within reason, because we can never guarantee anything, because things happen. Things change as time rolls on. And it's hard to have a hard and fast number at the very beginning of a case, because when things change through the case, it can take more time for the attorney to deal with those changes. And so the retainer is paid as a prepayment, advance payment. And then as the attorney bills the time, that money is slowly removed from that trust account.
Steve Altishin 16:04
That leads to a topic that will come up in a minute, the whole topic of the expectations of both the attorney and the client. But before that, there's another part of the relationship that I find interesting and kind of want to talk about. It's that part of it, really, involves making decisions. A case, a family law matter, involves making decisions. And some decisions are made by the attorney, and some are made by the client. Can you kind of go through that part of it, you know, how these decisions are made, and who's generally responsible for making them?
Natalie Thorp 16:48
Sure. So a client comes to an attorney with a general goal in mind, 'Here's what I want to see happen'. And the client is, at the end of the day, the client is the captain of his own case. He gets to decide the what happens, you know, he gets to decide. When there's a decision to be made, it's actually his or her decision to make, not the attorneys decision, except when it comes to strategy. The attorneys job is to strategize the best way to accomplish the client's goal, and to counsel the client on what they believe that best way is. But even that is a collaborative work, right? It's between the client and the attorney. Let me let me go back a little bit, because a lot of attorneys do take the client out of that collaborative process. And I don't think that's helpful for clients. Because at that point, the client now has been completely removed from the equation, and they don't really know why decisions are being made in such a way as as they're being made. And so unless you're collaborating with your client, it's hard for the client to understand the direction their case is taking in a lot of cases. And so, while the strategy part is the attorneys job, it's also, it's also important for the attorney to include the client in those pieces so that the client can understand, as the process moves forward, why they are doing what they are doing, and why those decisions are being made, and how they're being made, and the reasons behind the decision to do those things and take that road.
Steve Altishin 18:25
This is kind of an example: you as the attorney may make decisions on which questions you may ask a witness, maybe even what witnesses you may call, but you're not going to make the decision on settling the case for X amount at all.
Natalie Thorp 18:49
No. Once we get into trial, the way that the trial unfolds is the job of the attorney. That is the attorneys job, but everything prior to that, and even everything that happens in post judgment stuff that's outside of the courtroom, should be a collaborative process. And it should include your client.
Steve Altishin 19:12
That makes sense. It's called a relationship. It's both of you working together. And it seems like whenever that gets out of balance, that is gonna make trouble leading to a good result. So, we talked a little bit about expectations. And that kind of leads to the next question, which is how to make an attorney client relationship successful. How important, and it's kind of a softball question I guess, but how important is an honest and open line of communication?
Natalie Thorp 19:56
It's vital. If the attorney doesn't have all the information, they can't protect the clients interests, they just simply cannot. If the client doesn't have all the information, then they don't know what the heck's going on in their own lives. It is truly vital that the attorney and the client continue to have an open and honest line of communication. It's bad to put your attorney into a situation, especially if you go to court, where things come out in the courtroom that the attorney doesn't expect.
Steve Altishin 20:29
I get that. I mean, if you don't trust your lawyer, there's going to be a quick breakdown of that relationship. And, I recall reading, on a national survey, that the most common complaint that clients have about attorneys is that they don't get the right or enough information. It's that lack of of information, whether or not some of it is super necessary at the moment to say, it's a feeling. Because, again, this is a trust relationship going on. So when you guys start to talk about that, this is where the relationship goes both ways. You need stuff, you need information from the client, and the client needs information from you. What sorts of things do you do to make sure that that all happens in a way that works best for both you and your client?
Natalie Thorp 21:47
Well, for me, I can only speak for myself, for me personally, that conversation starts on the first call that I ever have with a client, which used to be an in person meeting. Now it's on the phone. So I say call, but you know, whether it's a call or a meeting, that's when it should start. And you need to lay out the expectation. You need to set your clients expectations so that they know what they can expect as their case unrolls. And also, they need to tell you what they need. It's important for a client to tell their attorney, 'Here's what I need from you'. You know, when I write you an email, this is what I need. You're hiring the attorney. So it's really important to set the expectations for the attorney at the outset, as well. And I know many people will go into--and I can speak from the other side of the table as well. Like I said, at one point, I wasn't an attorney in my life, and I was a client--and so, I know going into an attorney's office for many people feels very intimidating. And the truth is, people, attorneys are just people. And they need to know what your expectations of them are as much as you need to know what their expectations of you are. And that conversation has to start from the beginning of the relationship. That's where you start it.
If I'm a client, I know that probably one of the first gut reactions I would have walking in to talk to you is that, well, if I tell you all the bad stuff, I'll probably lose, or I won't get as good of a result. How important it is to get that bad stuff, get the facts that are there, to your attorney? It's got to be something that's difficult to do.
It's so important, though, and it's hard to bare your soul to a stranger. It really is. And that's what an attorney is, especially at the very beginning of your case, we're strangers. But I can't protect you from anything I don't know about. And I need to, if there are bad things, I need to get in front of those things. I need to know where your vulnerabilities lie, so that I am able to figure out a way to mitigate them. And if I don't know them, I can't mitigate them. And they eventually, usually, I would say 90% of the time, they pop their head up anyway, whether you wanted them to or not. They come out, and then it's a surprise, and then I'm left holding the bag, because I didn't know. And so I'm not ready to protect you from this thing that you should have told me. So it's very important that people share even the stuff that's embarrassing, and that they don't want to share.
Steve Altishin 24:24
Is that something you talk about right off the bat? That bad information is always good information.
Natalie Thorp 24:31
Yes. My first conversation with clients is usually, tell me how you got here. Tell me everything that led you here. And please don't hold anything back. And I know that there's going to be embarrassing things that you probably did that you don't want me to know. But if you don't tell me, I can't protect you. So I need to know all of it. And then I just leave them the floor and usually that works pretty well.
Steve Altishin 24:52
Well, yeah. I imagine that you get a feel for the case that way. You know, just how their actions, the way they talk, what they talk about. That can help you even if it's not a specific piece of fact, like john doe did this on x day.
Natalie Thorp 25:11
Absolutely. Absolutely. And to get my feet under me on any matter, I need to know the background, I need to know the history, I need to know what got them here, I need to know all of it. Every piece. And a lot of times people will be like, well, and they'll skip over these huge pieces. And it's like, we need to go back because you skipped over five years. What happened in those five years? I mean, you may not think it's huge, but anything that could come up now needs to be disclosed, you need to talk about it.
Steve Altishin 25:39
So it's important. We talked a little bit about this before, before today, when we were talking about doing this. Some of the, I guess I called them the nuts and bolts that attorneys do when they're doing their job to help ensure good relationships. And one of them you mentioned was really exercise attention to details, because it seems like you guys have got an awful lot of stuff going on all at the same time. How do you work to try to make sure that things don't fall through the cracks?
Natalie Thorp 26:22
Calendaring, calendaring, calendaring. Everything needs to be on a calendar so that, you know, when you get a due date, you put it on your calendar. If you have something you need to do on Friday of next week, that needs to be a task on your calendar. Really, in order to stay organized, when you're running 30 cases, 40 cases at a time, you've got to calendar the stuff, and you've got to make sure that you're not missing deadlines. Your job is to watch the details and to know those deadlines and to know when you said, 'Hey, this is due to me on this date', and to follow up if you don't get what you were looking for reasonably close to that date.
Steve Altishin 27:00
The advancements in technology have to be helpful. I know a lot of people who are still a little bit afraid of sound technology. And it's, 'Why are you sending me this online document?' And how do I fill it out and do I have to fill in everything and all of those things. And it seems like these are the nuts and bolts that help you to not lose the detail.
Natalie Thorp 27:34
Steve Altishin 27:35
The other thing is the concept of being on time. Again, that was one of the things that you had talked about when you were on the other side of the attorney client relationship. It's the timeliness issues that attorneys really need to hold themselves to, and I guess, hold their clients to.
Natalie Thorp 28:01
Yes. So cases, if an attorney doesn't do their job, a case can languish for a really long time. And it's an attorneys job to push things forward, and to make sure that the deadlines that are inherently set by the court are not just abjectly missed, or continually pushed out. You know, the client wants resolution, they don't want this case that goes on for three years. I mean, my divorce took six years.
Steve Altishin 28:32
Natalie Thorp 28:33
So it was insane. It was unnecessary and insane. Truthfully, it's just inexcusable, it was an attorney who just didn't care. He just didn't care. And he just kept pushing things out and not doing the work he needed to do. And that's just, there's no reason for that, ever.
Steve Altishin 28:56
There are times of delay, and there are times of things not happening. I mean, it can be a business of hurry up and wait.
Natalie Thorp 29:05
Steve Altishin 29:06
But then I guess it's your responsibility to let your client know that. It's not that I am not doing anything, it's that there is nothing maybe to do and I'm not going to make work.
Natalie Thorp 29:20
Right. There's that piece too. I think, you know, there are times when an extension is required. There are times when the court date comes and we're not ready and we need to do certain things in order to be ready. And that's a reasonable thing. You have to explain it to the client. But you know, there are other issues where people will just-- attorneys, not people--attorneys will extend for their own personal reasons over and over and over. And at that point, now you've just become a drain on the client, and your job is not to do that.
Steve Altishin 29:55
One of the last ones that we talked about on the nuts and bolts, and this I know alot of clients feel doesn't happen enough, is that ttorneys need to listen. Not just hear, but listen. That's pretty important, isn't it?
Natalie Thorp 30:12
Well, if you don't listen and hear, then again, you're losing bits and details that are imperative to their case. And so they can tell you all day long all the bad things they ever did, but if you didn't listen, and you didn't retain that, you won't be ready to protect them. And if they're telling you that something you're doing isn't working for them, and you don't hear or listen to that, that's going to impair the relationship. It just necessarily will. So yes, listening is probably one of the biggest skills and attorney needs to cultivate.
Steve Altishin 30:49
You talked about the workload, like your typical workload. Sometimes I'll hear, 'Well, that attorney just doesn't respond because they've got too many other cases. So I'm going to go out and try to find someone who's only got one other case'. Well, that doesn't seem reasonable. But there is a grain in terms of keeping a reasonable workload, isn't there?
Natalie Thorp 31:18
Absolutely. So it's an attorneys job to make sure that their workload is reasonable. If you are an attorney, and you can't respond to a client within a week, your week workload is unreasonable. If you can't respond, in my opinion, in three days, your workload is unreasonable. Like I said earlier, my personal goal is 24-hour turnaround at the very most, Most of the time, my turnaround for an email is almost immediate, because it's important. And a client will feel important if you make them important. And if you don't make them important, then they'll feel the opposite of that. So if you have a workload with 60 cases, and you can't respond to a client because you've got 1,000 other emails that day and it took up every ounce of your time, and that happens for a week with the same person, then you've just undone the entire relationship, because now you've made them feel unimportant.
Steve Altishin 32:13
Yeah. That gets us to our last topic, which is managing expectations. We have talked about that on a couple things. But it seems to me that that can be one of the most difficult things for the attorney to do. You can really only control some things, you can't control how another person feels. But you still have to try to manage expectations, because that can certainly blow up in your face.
Natalie Thorp 32:44
The biggest way that affects my practice, is that we can't control anybody else, right? I can control me, and I can somewhat control my client, or I can at least try, right? I can say to my client, this is what I recommend you do. But I cannot control the other party. So when I talked earlier about, we try and give a general idea, an estimate of what the case is going to cost. Well if the other party decides they want the case to cost a lot more, or they want to be difficult, or they want to make it difficult, then they're going to have the absolute ability to do that. Because I can't control them, I just have to respond to whatever comes. And so it's one of the things I think that clients need to know at the outset. And that goes into managing expectations, because then the client knows that they also can't control the other person. So they have this idea in their head of how their case should go, but a case never goes the way a client wants it to go 100% of the time, it just doesn't. So I think you've got to tell the client that at the beginning of the relationship. That is part of managing those expectations from the client so that they understand that we can work the case as close to your ideal as possible, but understanding that we're working with a whole other set of people, right? A whole nother attorney and an entire other client. And their ideas of how they want the case to roll out is going to be very different. And so managing expectations is, I would say, 80% of this job. Especially when you end up in court, because now you not only have the other client and their attorney, now you're bringing a judge in with their own histories and their own set of expectations of how they want it to roll out. Figuring out what the outcome of that is going to be is never something we can do. Right? It's always just going to be what that judge decides. And so you go in and you just have to tell your clients these things. You have to be upfront at the very beginning and set those expectations appropriately. Then the client has to remember that conversation. It's very important for the client to just remember that the only people that we can count on is ourselves. We can't change other people.
Steve Altishin 34:56
Yeah, yep. My final questino: does any of this matter? I mean, this is a question I sometimes get asked, sometimes by other attorneys. Doesn't success just guarantee a strong attorney client relationship? I mean, he's gonna like me when I win, kind of an attitude.
Natalie Thorp 35:20
I mean, I think there are attorneys out there that believe that. I don't think it's realistic. You can win a case, and that doesn't mean that you were good to your client. And it doesn't mean that you built a relationship where that client's going to come to you the next time they have problems. And I think that's the biggest part, and it doesn't mean that you built trust either, right? Sure. You won. But that's not trust building, that's just winning. And there's a difference.
Steve Altishin 35:45
Oh, my gosh, wow. That was a lot. And you can see really why attorney client relationships are the cornerstone for building a successful case no matter what case it is. That has to really happen. So thank you, thank you, Natalie, for coming. This was really, really great advice. And I think it's a little window open into the workings of what attorneys who really care about their clients and want to do a good job for them are thinking. Thank you so much for coming today.
Natalie Thorp 36:27
Thank you for having me. I truly enjoyed being here.
Steve Altishin 36:29
Oh, good. Oh, good. So I'm also going to thank everyone who tuned in to today's Facebook Live. As always, if anyone has any questions on today's topic, you can post it here, or you can shoot me an email at [email protected] And with that, until next time, everyone. Stay safe, happy, and have a great day. See you next time.
This has been Modern Family Matters, a legal podcast focusing on providing real answers and direction for individuals and families. Our podcast is sponsored by Landerholm Family Law and Pacific Cascade Family Law, serving families in Oregon and Washington. If you are in need of legal counsel or have additional questions about a family law matter important to you, please visit our websites at landerholmlaw.com or pacificcascadefamilylaw.com. You can also call our headquarters at (503) 227-0200 to schedule a case evaluation with one of our seasoned attorneys. Modern Family Matters, advocating for your better tomorrow and offering legal solutions important to the modern family.