Establishing the attorney-client relationship in our interconnected world

With the Web educating your potential clients as never before, they are likely to have questions about your qualifications as they interview multiple attorneys

Eustace de Saint Phalle
Olivia K. Leary
2020 August

More than ever, personal injury clients are better educated with regard to evaluating the skills and experience of their potential attorney, even if they are new to the civil litigation system. The existence of more resources discussing the legal system and a proliferation of legal issues highlighted in popular culture has resulted in many clients who are able to research and assess potential attorneys in an educated manner. Due to this, an attorney should be prepared to answer pointed questions and undergo an in-depth interview when meeting with a potential new client.

It is important to remember as an attorney that when you are contacted by a potential client, your focus should be to establish a productive and positive attorney-client relationship. In order to achieve these goals, we need to get back to the basics. This relationship needs to be based on honesty, trust and loyalty. You are not engaging in a financial transaction; you are providing a service for an individual who has suffered a significant loss and likely feels very vulnerable.

If an attorney is not prepared to answer a potential client’s questions or appears evasive, they will fail to establish the foundation for a successful legal relationship moving forward. Therefore, it is critical for a lawyer to be adequately prepared to answer the various tough questions that arise out of common client concerns.

These days most clients are asking many pointed questions, such as the following: (1) Do you handle my type of case? (2) Do you generally settle cases or do you take them to trial? (3) How successful are you in trial? (4) What experts do you believe are necessary for my case? (5) What kind of financial backing do you have to fund my case?

Do you handle my type of case?

When a client asks you this question, they want assurance that you are experienced in the type of legal issues presented by their situation and will provide them with capable representation. They want to know that you are not learning on the job. In answering whether you have handled this type of case, whether it involves general automobile negligence, construction negligence, workers’ compensation third-party crossover, criminal actions leading to injury, first-party claims, claims against a government entity, or product liability, an attorney should approach this analysis honestly and openly. Again, an attorney should be prepared to answer this question based on their actual experience; either you have or you have not been involved in similar matters.

However, while you may not have previously represented a client in a matter identical to the current situation, aspects of previous cases may relate to the one at issue. These prior cases that relate to the client’s situation should be discussed generally, so that the potential client can be given insight into the attorney’s experience. An attorney does not need to have previously represented clients in an identical matter to provide skillful representation. Although it may not be obvious initially to the client, the attorney should educate the client on how these previous cases may actually be similar to their own and how this previous experience will dovetail with their personal injury matter. Thus, the attorney should explain to inquiring potential clients how these prior cases will provide the requisite experience to ensure qualified representation.

If you do not have experience or are just starting out, it is important for your own development as an attorney and for the wellbeing of the client’s matter that you find a mentor or colleague who can collaborate and provide the necessary experience to ensure that the matter is handled properly. Many clients appreciate the idea that they will have more than one attorney working on a matter. The idea of a legal team is often appealing to those who are seeking representation for their personal-injury matter. Two heads are often seen as better than one.

Do you generally settle cases or do you take cases to trial?

Many potential clients are aware that some personal-injury attorneys rarely enter a courtroom and may lack trial experience that could crucially affect their case. Understandably, personal-injury plaintiffs want to be assured that their attorney has experience at trial and is prepared to manage their case from initial pre-litigation, negotiation of a settlement, and all the way to a jury verdict. In order to address these concerns, an attorney can provide the client insight into their trial history, including whether they are accustomed to trying cases.

An attorney should also be prepared to discuss this with an eye to the specific case at hand. This likely includes walking the potential client through the anticipated notable issues that often arise during the pre-litigation, litigation, and trial phases of a personal-injury case. You should be ready to explain generally what a personal-injury client should be prepared for, as well as any foreseeable issues in the client’s specific case.

Explain referral up front

While most good cases settle without the need for a long, drawn-out trial, you must be prepared to handle the matter through to conclusion, even if this involves referring the case out for trial. Be prepared to explain how this referral to another attorney for trial will be handled should it be necessary. Again, if you do not have trial experience, it is important to find a more senior attorney with trial experience to handle the matter, should it get that far.

How successful are you in trial?

Many clients today want to know that their attorney is not just competent to litigate the case, but that you are successful and can win at trial. It will be important to be able to address this issue when you discuss the potential case with the client. Ultimately, in this profession we are measured by our successes. This is often the point in the conversation where it is good to explain how the defense attorney and the insurance company will be assessing the person’s claims and evaluating their damages. Ultimately, the client needs to understand that you and the client are both assessed by the other side, when the defense is making judgment calls as to whether they should resolve a case and for how much.

This is another area wherein a team approach, as opposed to a sole attorney, may assist in addressing the client’s concerns if the attorney is new to the personal injury field. Having the skillset of a more senior attorney with litigation experience and a history of success at trial will be valuable both for the junior attorney and the client.

What experts do you believe are necessary for my case?

Especially in cases that contain complex issues of causation, liability and/or damages, potential clients are generally aware that expert witnesses may be required, and that expert analysis is usually necessary for you to be successful with their matter. Many potential clients want to know that the attorney has knowledge of who the reputable experts are in the necessary fields for their matter. You should go over the general types of experts you foresee being necessary, discuss how you will select experts based on the specific facts of the case, and demonstrate that you know how to strategically utilize these experts in a cost-effective way

What kind of financial backing do you have to fund my case?

Personal-injury cases usually are governed by a contingent-fee agreement. This means that an attorney must “foot the bill,” so to speak, for the pendency of the case until a resolution is achieved. Therefore, potential clients want insight into an attorney’s ability to provide the requisite financial backing. A deep analysis of the law firm’s finances is unnecessary. Instead, an attorney should generally confirm that the law firm is prepared to provide the needed financial support for the client’s case. If there are limits to what the attorney can financially support, for example if the case fails to settle and must go to trial, then these limits need to be explained to the potential client.

Conclusion

As the legal industry has shifted and competition has increased, attorneys must be prepared to earn the trust of each potential personal-injury client. Clients are increasingly educated with regard to what qualities and level of experience they want in their attorney and will often interview multiple attorneys.

All lawyers should recognize that they are not just providing a commodity or transaction, but are instead providing a service. In providing this service, an attorney should promote three central principles in each attorney-client relationship: honesty, trust, and loyalty. In doing so, the attorney should approach each relationship as if they have a fiduciary obligation to their client. You must demonstrate that you will keep their confidences and act in their best interest. At the conclusion of the client’s matter, clients will often feel that the intensity and depth of your attorney-client relationship is akin to that found in a marriage or a partnership. The tone of the legal relationship and the client’s experience throughout the representation relationship begins at this initial client meeting.

It is equally important to note that achieving this relationship with clients also greatly benefits the attorney. The establishment of trust, honesty and loyalty with your clients will allow for a foundation of open communication, teamwork, and greater likelihood of success. If an attorney is able to view each client not as a transaction but instead as a valued relationship, a myriad of benefits will follow.

Eustace de Saint Phalle Eustace de Saint Phalle

Bio as of May 2017:

Eustace de Saint Phalle leads the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation Groups. Eustace has established himself as one of California’s top personal injury trial lawyers, having personally litigated multiple cases to settlement, verdict, or judgment with awards in excess of $1,000,000 and as high as $25,000,000.

For the last fifteen years, Eustace has been running a trial team dedicated to the representation of injured individuals in California which has handled matters specializing in civil litigation that involve complicated medical issues and disabilities. Eustace is an accomplished civil litigator in a variety of areas, including industrial accidents, product liability, exceptions to workers’ compensation, premises liability, professional malpractice, auto, bicycle and boating accidents, as well as business disputes.

Eustace has participated in free legal clinics and pro-bono legal services for veterans and various worker unions. He is a member of the Bar Association of San Francisco, American Bar Association, Consumer Attorneys of California, and the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association.

In 1989, Eustace received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Berkeley. In 1995, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of San Francisco School of Law, and was subsequently admitted to the State Bar of California. He is admitted to practice in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California and U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth District.

Eustace was born, raised and educated in California. His father, Richard de Saint Phalle, was an assistant U.S. Attorney and in private practice handling civil litigation matters. His Grandfather, the Honorable Alfonso J. Zirpoli, began his practice handling personal injury cases. He later became a district attorney, assistant U.S. Attorney and was appointed as a Federal Judge for the Northern District of California by John F. Kennedy.

Eustace litigated and tried the Brian C. v. Contra Costa County Health Services case.  Eustace represented a Mexican immigrant mother and her surviving child in a medical malpractice case concerning negligent management of a twin pregnancy which resulted in the death of one twin and severe brain injury of the other twin.  The verdict included a present value calculation and a future value calculation for future medical and wage payments.  The present value verdict was $12,132,780.82.  The future medical and wage payments was $111,700,000. Per The Recorder, this was the largest medical malpractice verdict in California for the year 2014.

 

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Olivia K. Leary Olivia K. Leary

Olivia K. Leary is a member of the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, PC Personal Injury Group. She represents people who have suffered serious injury as a result of automobile accidents, defective products, dangerous premises, negligence, and intentional torts.

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