Attorneys bound to keep clients 'reasonably' informed

Steve Korris Oct. 20, 2005, 5:46am

According to the Illinois Supreme Court, an attorney must keep a client “reasonably informed” about the status of a case.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a client needs to know when or where the attorney files a suit, said Northwestern University law professor Steve Lubet.

“It depends on the nature of the retainer agreement,” he said. “The client’s got to know eventually.”

An attorney has a duty to give a client sufficient information to make decisions, Lubet said.

“When does the client need that information?" he posed. "You have to ask whether tardiness is the same as misconduct.”

"I could imagine lots of factual wrinkles in that, but there is nothing necessarily questionable about filing without telling the client when or where.

“Keeping clients in the dark is not desirable.”

Each year clients submit about 1,400 grievances to the Supreme Court’s Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission over communication breakdowns.

Director Jim Grogan said, “You try to resolve it to where the non communication becomes communication.”

“Sometimes it’s a sign of something deeper," said Grogan. "It comes to us as a failure to communicate but it doesn’t stop there.”

He said some attorneys abandon their practices due to disease or depression.

“They go away somewhere to die,” said Grogan.

The ARDC charged 147 attorneys with misconduct last year, according to Grogan. Communication failures figured in 56 of the cases, he said.

“In theory, clients have to make big picture decisions,” he said. “It’s not the lawyer’s case. It’s the client’s case.”

Supreme Court Rule 1.4 states, “A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.

“A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representations."

The rule binds any lawyer practicing in Illinois.

The American Bar Association (ABA), in a model rule that binds no one, also calls for keeping a client reasonably informed and explaining matters.

The Bar Association rule, however, goes further.

It says that a lawyer shall promptly inform a client of any decision or circumstance that requires a client’s informed consent.

The ABA also says a lawyer shall reasonably consult with a client about the means for accomplishing the client’s objectives.

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