Most problems that people have with their lawyers fall into four categories: communication problems, competence problems, ethical problems, and fee problems. It's rare, however, that clients have just one problem -- usually, problems spill over into two or more categories.
Here are some basic rules on what you have a right to expect from your lawyer in each of these areas.
Communication problems can cause you to think you have a bad lawyer when you don't, or that your lawyer is doing a bad job when she isn't.
Your lawyer should give you a basic description of your legal matter and let you know what problems to expect, how they'll be handled, and when things will happen. And of course, your lawyer should promptly return phone calls and answer your questions -- basic courtesies that many lawyers commonly ignore because they are so busy.
It's a big shock to most people that there is no guarantee of competence when you hire a lawyer. Sure, all lawyers have passed a bar exam, but one test, given at the very beginning of a lawyer's career, isn't all that significant. And if you complain to a bar association that your lawyer is incompetent, all you are likely to get in return is a shrug. Bar associations go after lawyers who steal or violate specific ethical rules -- not lawyers who just aren't very good.
If, however, your lawyer makes a mistake in handling your legal matter that no reasonable attorney would have made and you lost money because of it, it is called malpractice, and you can sue. The mistake can be a failure to do something, such as not filing a lawsuit on time, or doing something the lawyer should not have done, such as representing a business in bankruptcy while representing an investor negotiating to buy the business. Malpractice suits, unfortunately, are expensive to bring and tough to win. For more information, see Suing Your Lawyer for Malpractice.
Each state has ethical laws that bind lawyers. Commonly, these rules require lawyers to:
- represent their clients with undivided loyalty
- keep their clients' confidences
- represent their clients competently
- represent their clients within the bounds of the law, and
- put their clients' interests ahead of their own.
Each state has a lawyer discipline agency that is supposed to enforce these rules. If a lawyer violates a rule, the agency can impose monetary fines, require the lawyer to make restitution (such as pay back stolen money), suspend a lawyer's license to practice law for a while, or disbar the attorney. disbarment, however, is exceedingly rare, and is usually reserved for lawyers with a long record of stealing from clients.
Lawyers' bills, unsurprisingly, are one of the most common areas of contention with clients. Most complaints sound like one of the following:
- My bill is too high, and it's not what we agreed to.
- My bill isn't itemized. I have no idea what my lawyer claims to have done to earn it, and she won't discuss it with me.
- My attorney did a terrible job, and I don't want to pay a big bill.
- My attorney billed me top dollar for her time when I know a paralegal did most of the work.
- My attorney padded his bill -- he billed me 30 minutes for every two-minute phone call, even when I called to protest earlier overbilling.
When you hire a lawyer, make sure that your fee agreement is in writing. That's the law in some states, and it's always a good idea. The agreement should specify how often you will be billed and should obligate the lawyer to provide an itemized statement. If you've agreed to pay your lawyer a contingency fee (the lawyer collects only if you win), be sure you know exactly how the fee is calculated and who pays for costs that arise while the lawsuit is in progress. For further information, see Attorney's Fees: The Basics and Creating a Fee Agreement With Your Lawyer.
If you feel your lawyer is not serving your best interests, see What to Do When You're Mad at Your Lawyer.
For more information on working with a lawyer, see Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions, by Shae Irving and the editors of Nolo (Nolo).