Care should be taken in communicating with your client

Solicitors are increasingly more accessible to clients in a myriad of different ways. One thing that won’t change is the need to provide independent and competent advice without fear or favour, and that means reading material before it is sent to the client. While it may be tempting to flick court material, offers and contracts received from the other side in a given matter directly to the client – they are going to see it eventually, after all – there are good reasons that solicitors cannot simply be a mailbox for clients.

Firstly, a communication which might not appear urgent on its face, may in fact be so when the content is fully appreciated. An acceptable offer may be contained in the body of a lengthy letter, and accompanied by a tight time-frame for a response; a solicitor who fails to pick that up early could cost their client an opportunity to resolve a matter quickly and cheaply. It cannot be presumed that clients read things immediately unless they are advised an urgent response is required – and they will certainly assume that the solicitor who forwarded the material has indeed read it first.

Even if the letter requires a response and allows plenty of time, it may be that the client is planning a trip away and will be out of contact for most of that period. It is imperative that solicitors be able to accommodate such circumstances without compromising their clients’ position. Even when deadlines can be adjusted by seeking extensions, a solicitor who causes such a need fails in several ethical duties1 and certainly cannot bill the client for any remedial action made necessary by their own delay.

Secondly, correspondence may contain information that needs to be delivered to the client with some context or with compassion. The revelation that children have been deliberately excluded from a deceased parents’ estate, or the making of unexpected allegations of misconduct, are circumstances which need to be revealed with the sort of sensitivity and tact that rarely lends itself to the written word and/or needs to be provided in a considered, careful manner.

Thirdly, a client may indeed read the material immediately, and seek your advice on it without delay. It would be both embarrassing and detrimental to the solicitor-client relationship if the solicitor had to admit that they had not read the material before passing it on, and could not provide guidance as and when requested.

The press of business means that solicitors will always have to prioritise, and may not be able to read letters as soon as they are received. They should always, however, read them before their clients do.

1 Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2012, r 4 and r 7.