Client communication is key! You must communicate with your client regularly so that they will know what is happening and so that you can answer any questions they have. Because criminal lawyers spend a great deal of time communicating in person (with frequent court settings, visits at the jail, telephone calls, etc.) you end up sharing a great deal of information verbally with your clients. Often, clients become confused about what you have relayed or they simply cannot remember it all due to the stress of the situation and the volume of information they must process. The question becomes how do you reinforce the information for your client?
Simply, you do so with written correspondence. It is important to provide your client with as much information as possible so that your client can make appropriate and informed choices about his or her case. Think about all the information you share with your client in a typical case: the offense as charged, the punishment range, possible enhancements, possible defenses, summaries of evidence, witness information, collateral consequences (ALR, occupational licenses, ability to seal or expunge, sex offender conditions, immigration consequences, family consequences, employment consequences, firearm possession rules, and so much more). How can your client remember and process all of this information following that 30 minute jail visit? How can your client explain some of these to family when they seek family advice on how to proceed?
Provide your client with written guidelines. Cheat sheets if you will. You can create a general “how to” page on getting an occupational license and/or reinstating a suspended license. You can create a general “informational” page on the ability to seal or expunge records. You can create a general “how to protect attorney-client privileged information” guideline to warn your client about talking to others, especially in the jail. There are many general information categories that apply. Create “cheat sheets” or general information sheets to hand out to your clients to reinforce some of this common information. Think of it like FAQs. You know the questions clients routinely ask you. Start a list, create a handout or two, and get these into your client’s hands.
Additionally, when you convey important information about your client’s case directly to him or her, follow that up with a written letter that summarizes your conversation. Yes, it takes time, but it’s about helping a client. When there is a plea bargain on the table and a timeline for accepting or rejecting it, send a letter to your client reminding him or her. When you need a list of witnesses for guilt/innocence or punishment/mitigation, send a letter reminding your client to get that information to you timely. And, most importantly, when your client disregards your advice, send a letter stating what your advice is and that he or she has declined to follow that advice which could result in certain consequences. This is about keeping the client informed and making sure you have a file of what you have or have not shared with your client.
Add correspondence to your case “checklist” and make sure you are providing information to your client. The correspondence might even include a “welcome letter” and a “closure letter”. Send your client a welcome letter upon representation, something that spells out your scope of representation, how they can best contact you, your typical schedule for returning calls or letters. Send a follow up when you have the details of the charge explaining the offense and its range of punishment. Send plea offers. And finally send a closure letter to let them know where to go from here, i.e. when they might be eligible to seal or non-disclose their records, how to proceed on probation, what to do if they encounter problems or have questions, and thank them for entrusting you.
Anyway, you get the point. There are many things you can do to reinforce the information you provide to your client. Just start with the basics and get in the habit of providing more information to your client.
(also published in Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association’s The Defender and blog)