Dealing with a Bad Lawyer

You searched carefully, you crossed your fingers, and you made your decision. You hired a lawyer who said he or she could solve your problem and protect you in court. Now your lawyer seems to have lost interest in your case. The secretary won’t let you get through, or you get nothing but voicemail. And the lawyer doesn’t return your phone calls. What can you do? Here are some suggestions for dealing with a bad lawyer.

First, if you have a lawyer who is difficult to reach, don’t rely on the phone. Use the mail. Write a letter to your lawyer. Describe in your letter the expectations you have about the lawyer’s services. If you expect the lawyer to return your call within two business days (which is reasonable in anybody’s book), say so. If you need to know what has happened to the money you gave your lawyer, ask for an accounting so you know where you stand financially.

As you write, be careful to describe only what you have observed. Avoid making assumptions about behaviors you haven’t seen or heard or about your lawyer’s motives for actions he or she has taken. As long as you confine your statements to what you have observed, it enhances your credibility.

It’s often a good idea to schedule a meeting with your lawyer to get your questions answered and to find out what remains to be done on your case. Know that you will pay the lawyer for the time it takes, but that’s often the smartest money you can spend, particularly if you and your lawyer aren’t communicating well without it. When you go to the lawyer’s office, take a buddy, someone who can be an extra set of eyes and ears. That’s not because you don’t trust your lawyer; it’s because you’re in the middle of a divorce (or other stressful event), and you’re in crisis. It’s easy for you to forget to ask something that’s important to you, so your buddy can help you remember.

Before you go to meet with the lawyer, WRITE DOWN all your questions. Remember, you’re in crisis. Writing down the questions will help you remember those things you wanted to talk about.

You will impress your lawyer if you make it clear that you’re being as attentive to the things YOU need to be doing as you are to the things your lawyer needs to be doing. It’s a common complaint of lawyers that their clients seem to want their lawyer to jump through 16 hoops but then don’t take responsibility for the smallest of tasks the client needs to be doing. If you avoid that trap, you’ll win some points with the lawyer.

Now, everything I’ve said before assumes you’re dealing with a lawyer who may not have done a great job communicating with you but is fundamentally conscientious. This kind of lawyer usually needs simply a reminder to get his or her service back on track.

Let’s talk about the lawyer who just won’t respond at all or who rejects any attempt on your part to restore communication. First, check your payment of the lawyer’s bills. If your lawyer has asked for payment on your account and you haven’t paid, it’s not at all unusual for the lawyer to want to avoid spending any more time on your account. Divorce lawyers worry incessantly about getting their bills paid, and no lawyer I know wants to spend time on a client who won’t pay his or her bill.

If you’re square with the lawyer financially and he or she still won’t respond, you may need to get the bar association involved. Call the Alabama State Bar Association at (800) 354-6154. Tell them you want to file a complaint about poor service from an attorney who is a member of the bar (all lawyers practicing law in Alabama must be members of the Alabama State Bar Association). They will send you a form you can fill out and mail in. If you wish, you can go to the Alabama State Bar Association web site and print the complaint form yourself.

What happens after you file a complaint with the bar association? Here’s the explanation from the bar association’s pamphlet on filing a complaint against a lawyer.

All complaints filed with the Alabama State Bar are reviewed by Bar counsel to determine if the complaint has sufficient merit to warrant a full investigation. In most cases, a copy of your complaint is sent to the lawyer for a response. Once the lawyer’s response is received, your complaint and his response will be reviewed again by Bar counsel to determine what further action, if any, should be taken. You will be sent written notification of the decision. If it is determined that there is insufficient evidence to merit a formal investigation, then you will be notified. However, if there is sufficient information to establish that an ethics violation possibly occurred, a formal investigation will be opened. Some investigations will be sent to local Bar grievance committees, and others will be investigated by [the General Counsel’s Office of the Alabama State Bar].

The processing of most formal investigations at this stage can take anywhere from six to eighteen months, depending on the complexity of the situation. You will be notified in writing about the outcome of your complaint. You may be contacted during the investigation. If a hearing is held before the Disciplinary Board, you will be required to attend and testify.

The bar association has a smorgasboard of actions it can take against your lawyer, ranging from probation, requiring the lawyer to submit to additional monitoring, to permanent disbarment whereby the lawyer cannot practice law again for five years and not even then without formally petitioning for reinstatement.