Q. I lost my case, and I still had to pay my lawyer’s bill along with costs and expenses. I am not very happy with my lawyer. What can I do?
A. First, talk with your lawyer. A lack of communication causes many problems. If your lawyer appears to have acted improperly, or did not do something that you think he or she should have done, talk with your lawyer about it. You may be satisfied once you understand the circumstances better.
Q. I have tried to discuss my complaints with my lawyer. However, my lawyer will not discuss them. Do I have any alternatives?
A. Yes. If your lawyer is unwilling to address your complaints, consider taking your legal affairs to another lawyer. You can decide whom to hire (and fire) as your lawyer. However, remember that when you fire a lawyer, you may be charged a reasonable amount for the work already done.
Most documents held by your lawyer that relate to the case are yours—ask for them. In some states, however, a lawyer may have some rights to a file until the client pays a reasonable amount for work done on the case.
Q. What if I feel that my lawyer has acted unethically?
A. How a lawyer should act, in both professional and private life, is controlled by the rules of professional conduct in the state or states in which he or she is licensed to practice. These rules are usually administered by the state’s highest court through its disciplinary board.
These rules describe generally how lawyers should strive to improve the legal profession and uphold the law. They also give more detailed rules of conduct for specific situations. If a lawyer’s conduct falls below the standards set out in the rules, he or she can be disciplined by being censured or reprimanded (publicly or privately criticized); suspended (having the license to practice law taken away for a certain time); or disbarred (having the license to practice law taken away indefinitely).
The law sets out punishments for anyone who breaks civil and criminal laws, and that includes lawyers. But because of the special position of trust and confidence involved in a lawyer-client relationship, lawyers may also be punished for things that are unethical, even if not unlawful—such as telling others confidential information about a client or representing clients whose interests are in conflict.
Q. What are some specific examples of the ethical duties of lawyers?
A. Among the highest responsibilities a lawyer has is his or her obligation to a client. A number of strict rules and commonsense guidelines define these responsibilities.
Every lawyer must aim to provide high-quality work. This requires the lawyer’s ability to analyze legal issues, to research and study changing laws and legal trends, and otherwise to represent the client effectively and professionally.
Following the Client’s Instructions
A lawyer should advise a client of possible actions to be taken in a case and then act according to the client’s choice of action—even if the lawyer might have picked a different route. One of the few exceptions occurs when a client asks for a lawyer’s help in doing something illegal, such as lying in court or in a legal document. In these cases, the lawyer is required to inform the client of the legal effect of any planned wrongdoing and refuse to assist with it.
Every lawyer must act carefully and in a timely manner in handling a client’s legal problem. Unnecessary delays can often damage a case. If, because of overwork or any other reason, a lawyer is unable to spend the required time and energy on a case, the lawyer should refuse from the beginning to take the case.
A lawyer must be able to communicate effectively with a client. When a client asks for an explanation, the lawyer must provide it within a reasonable time. A lawyer must inform a client about changes in a case caused by time and circumstances.
The amount the lawyer charges for legal work must be reasonable, and the client should be told the specifics of all charges.
With few exceptions, a lawyer generally may not tell anyone else what a client reveals about a case. The reason for this strict rule is to enable a client to discuss case details openly and honestly with a lawyer, even if those details reveal embarrassing, damaging, or commercially sensitive information about the client. A rule called attorney-client privilege helps protect confidential information from being disclosed.
Conflicts of Interest
A lawyer must be loyal to his or her client. This means that a lawyer cannot represent two clients who are on opposite sides in the same or related lawsuits. And, ordinarily, there can be no representation of a client whose interests would conflict with the lawyer’s interests. For example, a lawyer may not be involved in writing a will for a client who leaves the lawyer substantial money or property in that will.
Keeping Clients’ Property
If a lawyer is holding a client’s money or property, it must be kept safely and separately from the lawyer’s own funds and belongings. When a client asks for the property, the lawyer must return it immediately and in good condition. The lawyer must also keep careful records of money received for a client and, if asked, report that amount promptly and accurately.
Q. How can I file a complaint against my lawyer?
A. If you believe you have a valid complaint about how your lawyer has handled your case, inform the organization that governs law licenses in your state. Usually this is the disciplinary board of the highest court in your state. In some states, the state bar association is responsible for disciplining lawyers.
The board or the bar will either investigate the complaint or refer you to someone who can help. If your complaint concerns the amount your lawyer charged, you may be referred to a state or local bar association’s fee arbitration service.
Filing a disciplinary complaint accusing your lawyer of unethical conduct is a serious matter. Try to resolve any differences or disputes directly with the lawyer before filing a complaint. Be aware that making a complaint of this sort may punish the lawyer for misconduct, but it will probably not help you recover any money.
If you have a case pending that your lawyer has mishandled, be sure to also protect your rights by taking steps to see that your case is now properly handled.
Q. My lawyer’s incompetence meant that I lost my case. What can I do?
A. If you believe that your lawyer has been negligent in handling your case—and that negligence has ended up costing you money or injuring you or your legal rights—you may be able to bring a malpractice suit against your lawyer.
Q. My lawyer settled my case out of court and refuses to pay me my share of the settlement. What can I do about it?
A. If you believe that your lawyer has taken or improperly kept money or property that belongs to you, contact the state client security fund, client indemnity fund, or client assistance fund. The state or local bar association or the state disciplinary board can tell you how to contact the correct fund. These funds may reimburse clients if a court has found that their lawyer has defrauded them. Lawyers pay fees to maintain such funds. Be aware, however, that most states’ programs divide up the money that is available in a given period of time among all the clients who have valid claims. There is rarely enough money to pay 100 percent of every claim.
Q. If I am having a problem with my lawyer, is there any reason that I would want to call the police?
A. Yes. If you believe that your lawyer has committed a crime such as stealing your money or property, you should report that crime. This is a last resort that should be taken only when you feel certain. Do not feel intimidated because your complaint is against a lawyer.