Rules of Engagement
This article is not about sparring or combat; the prelude to a marriage relationship or the show of the same name. It is about a relationship of another kind – the all-important Engagement Letter that establishes the parameters of the attorney- client relationship.
A good engagement letter spells out in detail the commitments of attorney to the client and likewise the client to their attorney. In many ways it defines expectations and enumerates the obligations of both parties. As an example – an engagement letter can identify matters and issues such as correspondence, progress and court matters, as well as fees.
The engagement letter gives structure to the attorney-client relationship and can identify the beginning and end of the legal representation. Engagement letters can take many forms. For example, in criminal cases there are often important matters of timing included as part of the engagement letter such as– when a court document must be filed or when a court appearance will be required.
Both the attorney and their client sign the engagement letter, so it is an important legal document for both parties.
Apart from the engagement letter, there is also the non-engagement letter. What, you may well ask, could prompt someone to write a letter detailing ‘non-engagement’ –meaning, in short, the attorney declines the case? There are two reasons (among others) when an attorney may make the decision to send a ‘non-engagement’ letter to a potential client. The two most common are that the matter is not within the purview (expertise) of the attorney and the other is that there is a conflict of interest (the attorney may have been approached by a co-respondent to a case.) The non-engagement would clearly state that no attorney-client relationship exists or will exist. Routinely any original of documents that may have been shared with the attorney would be returned to the client.
And there is yet another type of letter, related to the above – the disengagement letter. Another letter you ask! The disengagement is offered when an attorney declines further representation of the client – for example the attorney has not heard from the client for a period of time; they are closing the file; or no agreed fees have been paid.
Each of these documents – the engagement letter; the non-engagement letter and the disengagement letter seek to avoid misunderstandings between attorney and client. When interviewing an attorney, you might want to ask…What are their rules of engagement?
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