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Lawyers are some of our
best friends -- hey, some of us are lawyers. And there are great lawyers
plus many, many lawyers who are pretty good, especially if you get the right
one. But we get lots of calls and emails from clients and other civilians
complaining about lawyers, or at least confused and asking more questions than
we can answer. We cannot help everyone with a lawyer-problem or question,
so here are some general suggestions and resources. Our navigation bar
also has links with "Free (or Cheap) Help.
We also have other
publications available on this website or elsewhere that might help. Some
are free, like our Client-Friendly Billing Agreement and the
Client's Bill of Rights, and others are cheap, like our
Civilian's Guide to Lawyers series. You can also visit our free
Two E-Books for Clients &
by John Toothman
Available online as
e-books for the Amazon Kindle.
(Nook editions also available)
The Client Bill of
Rights: Based on our original Client Bill
Includes the ten rights all
clients have and all lawyers should respect. ($2.99; 7700 words)
The Civilian's Guide to Lawyers™:
How to Hire a Lawyer: The
first of three volumes to assist clients to hire, manage, and fire
the right lawyer or, if they cannot find an
affordable, cost-effective lawyer, to help themselves. (Vol.
1 $9.90; 47,000 words) (Vol. 2: How to Fire a Lawyer; Vol. 3:
How to Live Without a Lawyer coming soon)
Unfortunately we are inundated with more
questions and complaints about lawyers and law firms than we can handle. We also cannot
be everywhere at once. The article below provides some basic concepts for people we cannot help, but who want to know what other options they may
We cannot give you legal
advice -- you should consult a local
attorney or bar organization for that purpose.
That's part of how lawyers and their bar organizations limit competition, and
also deflect criticism or complaints against lawyers. And,
while clients and the public are right to be suspicious of self-regulation by lawyers, one way
to make that system better is to encourage bar organizations to fulfill their
responsibilities and honor the commitments they've made to the public in
exchange for extraordinary control of the legal economy.
What's a Client to Do?
Many clients of lawyers have a
positive experience, but many more seem to have one or more problems.
And every client or potential client has questions, or
could be a problem with fees, with the results, with the burdens of discovery,
with the delays, or with the irrationality of the system. Often they blame
the lawyer for the problem, but don't know what to do about it. Maybe it's
not the lawyer's fault at all -- they just don't know. They also feel that
the entire legal system is designed to protect its own -- they don't know who to
turn to or what to do. Clients, even large corporations, also feel that if
they ask their lawyer questions or doubt their lawyer, the lawyer will retaliate
No matter how sympathetic or irrational the
situation may be, there are also times when the lawyer or legal system is not
wrong or to be blamed. Sometimes you just need to move along.
While every issue is not alike, here are some
common ways to address the problems with lawyers we see most often:
If you think you have been a victim of legal malpractice,
the normal remedy is a new lawsuit for malpractice. It is generally
not malpractice simply for a lawyer to lose -- the question is usually whether the
lawyer was negligent in representing you and it caused you
harm. Your first step is to try to locate a lawyer who handles such
cases in your area.
Check with local bar referral sources to find a lawyer
who handles this type of claim. Helpful links appear below.
It is normal for clients to be concerned that the
system will protect its own. There are, however, lawyers who
will sue lawyers -- just find the right one.
Lawyers who prey on their clients will rely on every
trick of their trade to avoid liability -- clients seeking to pursue
a legal malpractice claim must be prepared for a grueling
Even if a lawyer says he or she cannot help you, ask
them for a referral to someone who can.
You should not delay -- even a valid claim can be lost
simply because you waited too long.
Certain types of malpractice can also be an ethics
violation, so you can also contact a bar organization. Keep in
mind, however, that the bar is looking for evidence of an ethical
violation, which is not necessarily the same as malpractice.
Many examples of incompetent, unethical, or
unnecessarily expensive legal services are not malpractice --
malpractice is not just a mistake.
If you think a lawyer has done something unethical, the
normal remedy is to report him or her to the state bar organization, which
should have a separate committee or group that investigates and disciplines
Your complaint normally must be in writing and you must
provide enough detail for the bar to identify the lawyer, investigate
the complaint, and determine whether it might involve an ethics
As with malpractice claims, there are many situations in
which lawyers make mistakes, behave badly, or charge more than you can
afford that are not unethical.
One advantage of the ethics complaint is that the bar
provides the resources to investigate and prosecute the complaint -- the
client still have to invest time, but not as much as a malpractice
complaint normally entails.
Here is a source for many state bar organization
the ABA website.
If your problem is legal fees, many bar organizations have
some form of arbitration to resolve those disputes.
Some of these are very good, producing reasonable
results for little or no investment.
Others have been completely co-opted by the worst
offenders. Sorry, but we don't have a list of which are
which. You need to ask around and be skeptical.
Most arbitrations are binding even if informal.
You should consult with a lawyer or be sure you understand all the
implications of arbitration.
Although ethical rules are supposed to keep fees
reasonable, most bars ignore most billing disputes because they are so
numerous and establishing an unethical fee with vague rules is almost
impossible, absent outright fraud or theft.
These are not all the possibilities for disputes between
lawyers and clients -- some may be criminal or involve other types of
problems. Contact the state bar, another lawyer, or both to discuss
Some other suggestions:
Act promptly, while things are still fresh in your mind
and before time deadlines might pass.
Be specific and detailed.
Be patient. Not every delay is due to a global
conspiracy among lawyers.
Get things in writing and save them.
Don't threaten -- either act or don't act, but threats
Be careful who you repeat your story to. Many
lawyers threaten clients with defamation, libel, and slander suits
because the client publishes his or her complaint.
Consult with a local attorney and bar
organization for advice.
Visit our free blog for the
client's perspective on the legal system and lawyers. Blog.CiviliansGuidetoLawyers.com