Ethics Corner Article
New Hampshire Bar News – September 19, 2018
I am a busy general practitioner. I am finding that between my hectic court schedule and limited office time, it is a challenge to keep up with the daily influx of phone calls from clients and their frequent requests for updates. I often feel like answering the phone or calling clients back cuts into the time I have for other crucial tasks like research, writing motions, and reviewing files. What should my ethical considerations be when prioritizing client updates and communication?
While you must exercise an ability to properly balance the responsibilities in representing your client, you should not underestimate the importance of prompt communication with your client and consistent updates. Not only are prompt and thoughtful phone calls ethically required, they pay dividends when it comes to client satisfaction, client “control”, and in decreasing the likelihood of a claim of ineffective assistance.
To underscore how important client communication is to ethical practice, one need only look at the last two years of violations found through the Attorney Discipline System. In 2015 and 2017, Rule 1.4 (Client Communication) was the second most common rule violation found. Attorney-client relationship related rule violations in general (Rule 1.1-1.19) made up 47.5% of the violations in 2017, 45.75% in 2016, and 62% in 2015. 104 of 219 total violations in 2017 were relative to Rule 1.1-1.19.
Below are some of the specific rules that should be considered when trying to strike the ethical balance between prompt client communication and other tasks in a busy practice.
Rule 1.1: Competence and Rule 1.3: Diligence
Both rules require that a lawyer act in a prompt and timely fashion when communicating with a client. Rule 1.1 requires that a lawyer “undertake actions on the client’s behalf in a timely and effective manner.” This necessitates timely communication in order to take action that requires client direction or authorization.
Additionally, Rule 1.3 and its comments indicate that a lawyer has an obligation to control workload to achieve ethical diligence to all clients in a prompt manner.
Rule 1.4: Client communication
This is the most directly applicable rule. This rule expressly requires “prompt” correspondence with the client regarding topics that require informed consent. It also necessitates “prompt” responses to requests for information. The comments to this rule suggest that even if an immediate response with information is not feasible, some acknowledgment of receipt of the request is appropriate by the lawyer or the lawyer’s staff.
- Be mindful of work load. Practice saying no. This is contrary to the prevailing attitude in the business of law. But a review of the disciplinary data suggests it should play a bigger role in case management decisions. Even if you are not in a position to control your own work flow, consider raising the issue with your supervisor and whoever assigns you work. It will be your ethical track record on the line if a complaint is filed against you. Remember, too, that not overworking yourself will result in happier clients, better quality of representation, and ultimately a better reputation.
- Have a system in place to respond to client communication if you are not immediately available. A quick email is often enough. The client will appreciate knowing that he or she is “on the radar”, even if a full conversation doesn’t happen right away. If you have support staff, train them on an appropriate and standard acknowledgment to the client that you have received the communication and that you are aware of the request.
- Manage client expectations up front. Being clear with your clients about what case communication will look like helps the client to know what to expect and what not expect. Being transparent initially about your time goals for responding to client communication is much easier than apologizing once the client is already frustrated.
- Initiate contact with clients regularly. Don’t wait for the client to call and ask for an update on the status of the case. A client’s satisfaction with your communication will only be increased when it is clear that you are setting aside time to make case updates a priority.
The Ethics Committee provides general guidance on the New Hampshire Rules of Professional Conduct and publishes brief commentaries in the New Hampshire Bar News. New Hampshire lawyers may contact the Committee for confidential and informal guidance on their own prospective conduct or to suggest topics for Ethics Corner commentaries by emailing,
Robin E. Knippers at firstname.lastname@example.org