What You Should Expect From a Lawyer

If you're dissatisfied with your lawyer, this article will help you determine whether your complaints are reasonable.

Updated By , Attorney · University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law

Most complaints people have with lawyers fall into one of four categories—and having more than one problem isn't uncommon either. Here are the main areas of contention:

  • communication
  • competence
  • ethics, and
  • fees.

You have a right to quality service from your attorney. In this article, you'll learn what you can expect from your lawyer in each of these areas.

Get tips on working with a lawyer.

Communication With Your Lawyer

Communication problems create problems in all types of relationships—including between an attorney and client. If you don't know what's going on in your lawsuit, you might assume you have a bad lawyer. To the contrary, your attorney could be doing a great job. Either way, a lawyer who doesn't communicate case progress is invariably increasing, not decreasing, your stress.

When you initially retain counsel, your lawyer should:

  • explain the options available in your legal matter
  • discuss strategy
  • provide a timeline for important events, and
  • promptly return phone calls and answer your questions.

Keep in mind that this might not occur as quickly as you'd like if your attorney is busy. For instance, it's common to hear less frequently from a lawyer who is in trial. But someone in the office should be able to explain when you'll hear from your attorney and assure you that the office is handling your case appropriately.

Find out how to hire the right attorney.

Your Right to Attorney Competence

It's a big shock to most people that there is no guarantee that your lawyer will do a good job. Bar associations tasked with monitoring attorneys go after lawyers who steal or violate specific ethical rules—not lawyers who just aren't very good.

Part of the reason is that what constitutes a "good job" is somewhat relative. For instance, a client might expect an acquittal in a criminal case. However, other private criminal attorneys might consider a reduction from a felony to a misdemeanor charge a job well done.

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.

Your Lawyer Should be Ethical

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 within the bounds of the law, and
  • put their clients' interests ahead of their own.

Each state has a lawyer disciplinary agency to enforce these rules. The agency can impose monetary fines, require the lawyer to make restitution (such as return stolen money), suspend a lawyer's license to practice law, or disbar the attorney. Disbarment is exceedingly rare and is usually reserved for lawyers who have committed serious crimes or who have a long record of stealing from clients.

You Should Understand the Legal Fees

When you hire a lawyer, it's important that your fee agreement is in writing and that you understand it. It's a simple way to avoid a common cause of contention with clients—the legal bills.

Here's a list of common complaints:

  • 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.
  • My attorney did a terrible job, and I don't want to pay a big bill.
  • My attorney billed me at the lawyer's rate when a paralegal did most of the work.
  • My attorney padded the bill by billing 30 minutes for every two-minute phone call, even when I called to protest earlier overbilling.

States such as California require a written retainer agreement that discloses the billing system and charges. Even if your state doesn't require a written agreement, it's a good idea to insist on one.

The agreement should specify how often you will be billed and require the lawyer to give you an itemized statement, so you understand the charges. 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.

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 the editors of Nolo (Nolo).