“What should I expect in terms of communication from my lawyer as my case progresses?”
The client controls their own case. The lawyer is there to help the client to choose the route the case will take, whether negotiation, mediation, the Collaborative approach, or litigation (court). The lawyer also prepares financial disclosure (such as financial statements based on documentation from the client) and legal pleadings (Application or Answer and Claim) or the contract (marriage contract, cohabitation agreement or separation agreement), but it always remains the client’s case. The lawyer is the facilitator using their legal knowledge. Therefore, the client is entitled to whatever level of communication they choose.
Some people wish to see each letter to approve the wording before it leaves the lawyer’s office while others only want copies of letters coming into and out of the lawyer’s office. It is the client’s choice.
Some people want to communicate weekly, daily, or multiple times daily by phone, e-mail, fax, etc. — and again, it is the client’s choice. As a lawyer, I prefer a mid-point between the client who does not communicate and the one who e-mails constantly. Unless information has been requested by the lawyer or something important or of concern has happened, it should not be necessary to communicate several times a day. (That level of control over the process needs to be discussed between the lawyer and the client because a busy law firm may find that a bit disconcerting.) However, given that the process may be very familiar to the lawyer and not to the client, who may never have gone through anything similar (and hopefully won’t again!), it is understandable.
The client owns the file and is entitled to copies of all correspondence and all court documents, offers to settle, court endorsements and order as well as agreements, consents and items of financial disclosure. The client’s file ought to closely resemble a miniature of the lawyer’s file.
The lawyer must discuss and be directed on all negotiations and check that the direction of things meets with the client’s approval and understanding.
The client must immediately be told of any constraints, whether as to dates and time limitations, so that they know what will be expected of them by way of attendances at the lawyer’s office or at court and when. They must also be told what will be expected of them by way of input or even as to their silence (e.g., the lawyer does the talking in court unless in response to a direct question asked of the client by the Judge). The opposite is true at a Collaborative meeting, where everyone talks — and this difference must be explained by the lawyer.
A client has a right to expect phone calls to be promptly returned by the lawyer or their staff and that e-mails will be responded to as well, although perhaps not with the same speed as many law firms are inundated in e-mails. I often hear that the No. 1 complaint by family law clients is that no one has gotten back to them. A competent, caring lawyer will be sensitive to a client’s needs and will be able to reach them for information, advice, and re-assurance.
Judith Holzman is a collaboratively trained family lawyer who has practiced for over 33 years in the Toronto and York Region area. She has participated in amendments to the Family Law Act (provincial) and the Divorce Act (federal) in the area of religious divorce.