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Developing a Relationship of Respect


Following up

Clients usually justifiably expect an attorney to pursue their cases diligently. A client who does not care about his or her own case enough to talk with the attorney periodically (and check that the attorney is actually doing something, particularly where retaliation is ongoing), may well be ignored. This lapse may compromise the client's case. On the other hand, some clients become pests and may not realize that the attorney is not his or her therapist, or has other clients and a personal life, or that litigation includes slow periods. Problem attorneys also exist, including those who lie to clients or otherwise commit malpractice.

  • When the attorney promises to do something (write a letter, file a legal response, or even settle the case) within a short time, but then keeps revising the estimate backward, this can be a red flag (usually in hindsight). Most clients will try to accommodate the attorney, at least at first. After all, unexpected difficulties may have arisen. However, repeated delays over several months may indicate the attorney may not respect the client, or the standards of professional conduct. All too often, lazy attorneys just say what they think a potential client wants to hear in order to get hired. Such clients may well not be getting their money's worth.

  • Finally, remember this is a deadline-driven area of law. Often agencies do not inform employees about deadlines, because neither the MSPB or Federal Circuit consistently insist upon it, despite regulations to the contrary. Lawyers know some colleagues often miss deadlines. However, they almost never risk trouble by bringing this the attention of appropriate bar or judicial authorities, much less the public. Agency personnel are particularly solicitous if the attorney quickly drafts a settlement agreement, which usually includes language that the client is satisfied with the attorney's services. Of course, clients left stewing in a retaliation situation are by definition being abused and often will jump at a prospective solution, especially if the attorney chooses not to explain the consequences. Thus, for an agency, attorney procrastination and even downright malpractice becomes a "no harm, no foul" scenario.

Staying healthy

Talk to family and friends. Exercise. Laugh. By all means keep making new friends. Get enough sleep and eat healthy foods. Make sure to go to the doctor and dentist for those regular checkups, and to address any illness that happens. Contact whistleblower organizations to find others who have lived through similar situations. Talk to a priest or therapist (especially if you can find one recommended by trusted friends). Keep your sense of humor, if at all possible. Of course retaliation is usually designed to get the whistleblower to crack, stress out, or whatever cynical, paranoid or pragmatic spin you want to put on the situation. Hearing the cliche about what does not break you makes you stronger probably does not feel very comforting at this point.

Checking billing statements

Although some clients do not ask for bills for fear of their size, this can be penny wise and pound foolish. Ask for billing statements, especially if you are not getting them regularly. Attorney Fees.

  • Attorney ethics require the attorney to account for how he has earned (spent) a retainer, and the contract with the attorney (sometimes called an engagement letter) usually says so too. Unfortunately, some over-committed, lazy or not terribly ethical attorneys use bills to manipulate their clients. These don't send bills until they far exceed the retainer, or wait until just before a crucial deadline and threaten to quit. Or they submit one-line bills instead of the hourly billing statements that courts require. These practices all hide real problems.

  • While no one likes to receive bills, regular billing prevents some later problems, by giving clients necessary information to evaluate the relationship. Clients receiving large, tardy bills may well feel ambushed, especially if they see items they were never told about, or learn that the attorney claims to have spent many hours familiarizing himself with the documents and law without ever drafting a memo or document to substantiate that effort, or simply seems to be educating himself at the client's expense. Some attorneys submit tardy bills with multiple telephone conversations with one agency official, indicating nonproductivity more than real value. Others receiving high, late bills notice no corroboration for legal research and telephone calls the attorney previously claimed that to have taken on the client’s behalf. Hence, the notes advice.

  • Skeletal bills for "services rendered" can hide lack of actual effort and legal skills. Many attorneys charge clients for telephone calls (at least over a minimal length) and meetings. [Therapists and career counselors probably charge a lot less.] If the attorney fails to return a client's telephone calls or only glances at or says he has read a document the client has prepared and given him and that it is "fine," the attorney may be simply lazy, as a more detailed bill would show.

  • If you catch your attorney in a lie, the simple advice is to get another attorney fast. While the temptation is to consider this an isolated incident and try to "work this out," the problem is likely to recur. This is especially so if the attorney refers to an upcoming settlement, how a lazy attorney can make money. Bar authorities and the MSPB may well well sympathize with the attorney. Criticism of this profession's as unable to police itself has been going on for years, to little effect, and the MSPB is one of the least consumer-protective federal agencies.

Reviewing documents

Most ethical attorneys will clear documents (such as briefs or settlement agreements) with their clients before filing them in court or sending them to the other party. The best practice is also to send the client copies of documents received from an opposing party, allowing the client not only an opportunity to see what the attorney is doing, but to make suggestions and request explanations. Empowering clients usually indicates a healthy attorney-client relationship. An attorney who does not may be disorganized, lazy, or even putting his or her own comfort or financial interest first. At the very least, he does not value (or tolerate) his client's input, a warning sign of trouble.

  • Some attorneys retain documents as a strategic move against their clients. Some state bar authorities allow attorneys to keep client files until their claimed fees are paid; others don't. All too many attorneys in both types of jurisdictions ignore the client's right to receive copies of that correspondence in the first place. Less ethical attorneys almost strategize against clients--using economic shock from a high, long-delayed and idiosyncratic bill, combined with failures to forward documents, to prod the client toward settlement on unfavorable terms. All too often, the attorney's prime goal is agency payment of all that attorney's claimed fees to settle, no questions asked. For the client, litigation without the complete file, or litigation with the attorney, are both expensive. Clients justifiably feel victimized, abandoned and betrayed--by its cost as well as because it further delays the case (especially if promises of speedy resolution were why the client hired the attorney in the first place). Self-help is precaution--insisting on both pre-clearing and forwarding documents.
  • Preparation. Preparation by attorneys and their clients affects both litigation results and settlement terms. Some attorneys suggest clients draft some responses and the like in order to save legal costs. This may be a good idea, provided the attorney remains closely involved. The attorney contributes legal expertise, as well as perspective and writing ability; the client knows the facts of his or her case intimately. A few lazy attorneys make few comments or changes before filing; flattery hides that the client is not getting his money's worth. Presumptions of settlement may be linked to the same lazy attitude (compounded where deadlines are missed), likewise to the client's detriment. Some may not bother to make sure the client understands the terms and circumstances, nor inform government employee clients about the MSPB's disinclination to review.
Most people do not initially realize that the whistleblowing and the retaliation experience does not end with the next job. Depression will probably lift without the bullying and with new friends. However, cynicism or wariness, even outright distrust of supervisors or "the System," are also common byproducts, especially where the situation lasted long enough to create a post-traumatic stress disorder. This does not mean that an attorney can or must act as a therapist or a career counselor, but should have referrals to those professionals available where necessary or requested. A realistic assumption is that retaliation will affect a former whistleblower's next several employment situations, if not his or her entire career path.
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