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Lawyer Complaints

People turn to lawyers during critical moments in their lives. When you need legal advice, chances are something has gone wrong or is about to go wrong. The American Bar Association (ABA) has created Rules of Professional Conduct to ensure ethical conduct in the practice of law.

Most attorneys take their legal duties seriously. What happens when an attorney violates a client's trust? How do you know when a lawyer has done something wrong? Not all attorney-client conflicts are ethical violations, but you should know if your attorney has mistreated you.

Professional Conduct and Ethical Rules

State bar associations have modeled their rules of conduct after the ABA's rules. They are nearly identical except for some local variations regarding legal fees. If a client needs to file an attorney complaint, they should contact their local bar association first. Each state is responsible for lawyer discipline and complaints.

Not all attorney-client disagreements require disciplinary action. However, violations of ethical rules may begin with minor disagreements. According to the ABA, the most common attorney discipline complaints filed with the bar association involve:

  • Neglect
  • Lack of communication
  • Misrepresentation or dishonesty
  • Scope of representation
  • Fee disputes

The ABA links neglect and poor communication together. Attorney neglect, also called lack of diligence, means the attorney is not giving your case their full attention and proper care. There could be valid reasons why an attorney cannot devote full time to your legal matter, but you deserve an explanation if that's the case. For instance, if the attorney has a trial that requires all their attention, your case might be sidelined or given to a paralegal for a few weeks.

This leads to the second most common issue between lawyers and clients: poor communication. If your lawyer fails to return phone calls or emails promptly, it is not necessarily unethical conduct. If it continues, though, it may become a violation. ABA rules of conduct require explanations of limits on lawyer conduct in ways the client can understand. This allows them to seek other representation if necessary.

Misconduct and Malpractice

While you may want to contact the bar association for lapses in communication, a lawyer failing to answer your calls or texts may not mean disciplinary action. It takes more to raise the attorney's action to the level of misconduct. The ABA takes disciplinary action against attorneys for conduct that involves:

  • Conflicts of interest, as attorneys cannot represent more than one client in the same case. They are also barred from having business interests adverse to any client or accepting gifts from clients for legal services
  • Charging excessive attorney's fees, misrepresenting fee agreements, or improper fee-splitting between attorneys
  • Commingling law firm funds with client security funds or failing to pay settlement funds after a contingency case
  • Allowing non-lawyers in the firm to engage in the unauthorized practice of law
  • Committing any criminal or discriminatory act

Legal malpractice occurs when a lawyer fails to handle a case with due diligence and competence or acts with intent to do harm. Although none of these actions alone constitute malpractice, they could become malpractice if the attorney's actions harmed your case.

Managing Attorney-Client Problems

Once you've found the right lawyer, issues with communication or fees may seem like the price you pay for help with your legal issues. However, your attorney works for you, and you deserve the best legal help available — not what you can put up with.

You can avoid some issues upfront with some basic precautions:

  • Discuss the timeline of your case with your attorney, and have realistic expectations for your case.
  • Review your fee agreement carefully. Ask for an explanation of anything you don't understand.
  • If your attorney requests additional information, provide it promptly.
  • Keep track of all contact with your lawyer, including phone calls and texts. Be sure your contact information is current.

Remember, communication is a two-way street. If your attorney needs something from you, your case cannot proceed without it. If you're not sure what something means, ask. Don't let questions become unsolvable problems.

If You Need to File a Formal Complaint

A formal complaint of attorney misconduct is a serious matter. The ABA's Rules of Professional Conduct exist to create ethical guidelines for the legal profession. The disciplinary system is in place to ensure that the public and current and future lawyers are safe from unethical attorneys.

State bar associations take allegations of professional misconduct seriously. Sanctions may range from private reprimands to suspensions or disbarment. Disbarments may be temporary or permanent, but all types of discipline appear on an attorney's record.

If you must file a formal complaint, your first step is contacting the state disciplinary counsel or board. State boards may have an official complaint form or provide other necessary information. You can also read more about the process in the FindLaw article "Where Can I File a Complaint Against My Lawyer?

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