Attorneys are licensed to practice law by the Highest Court of the state. When they are sworn in, all lawyers take an oath to uphold the laws of the United States, the laws of their state and to be governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct promulgated by their state's Highest Court. Most lawyers act ethically. Unfortunately, a small number of attorneys breach the trust that clients place in them by acting unethically. When this happens, not only are the individual clients hurt by the attorney's misconduct, but the entire legal system is damaged.
Attorney-Client Conflicts Versus Violations of Rules
In some cases, a problem between an attorney and his or her client does not constitute a violation of ethical rules. For example, some problems between lawyers and clients are the result of misunderstandings or a lack of communication. A mistake or an error in judgment is not unethical conduct. An honest disagreement about how a case should be handled or should have been handled does not constitute misconduct.
A lawyer may be disciplined only if the provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct have been violated. A lawyer who violates these standards of conduct may be disciplined and given penalties ranging from a private reprimand to permanent loss of the privilege to practice law. Some examples of violations for which an attorney can be disciplined include:
- Not keeping you informed of important developments in your case;
- Not returning your case file promptly if you’ve hired a different attorney;
- Failing to return money owed to you or failing to completely account for your money;
- Representing a client whose interests are directly opposed to yours;
- Intentionally making false statements;
- Negligently performing duties or committing malpractice;
- Charging a clearly illegal or grossly excessive fee.
Handling a Problem with Your Lawyer
If you have a problem with your lawyer, it is very important to discuss your concerns with your lawyer. As soon as you discover that a problem exists, call your lawyer and explain that you believe something is wrong with your attorney-client relationship or with the work being done on your case. Insist on a face-to-face meeting. You may be able to reach a mutually acceptable solution.
If your lawyer is unwilling to talk to you, write a letter explaining the problem and ask for a response from your lawyer. If your lawyer does not respond, consider hiring another lawyer. You have a right to expect competent representation from your attorney. If you are dissatisfied, you may fire the attorney and hire a different attorney. Ask that your files be sent to your new lawyer. Remember that the reason you terminated your attorney's services may not be grounds for disciplining your attorney.
Filing a Formal Complaint Against a Lawyer
The purpose of lawyer discipline is to protect the public from future acts of professional misconduct and to establish and maintain high ethical standards in the legal profession. The lawyer discipline system is designed to protect the public by disciplining a lawyer if he or she violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. The disciplinary procedure is intended to determine whether an ethical violation has occurred and, if so, what discipline should be imposed. The disciplinary process is not designed to recover funds from lawyers or to settle fee disputes.
A formal complaint of unprofessional conduct against a lawyer is a serious matter. A lawyer accused of misconduct is adversely impacted whether or not he or she is ultimately found to have violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. More than a mere claim of alleged misconduct is needed to justify disciplinary penalties. It takes evidence--legal proof. The same legal proof that is required before any member of our society is punished for wrongdoing.
Lawyer Discipline for Misconduct
Lawyer discipline may take one of several forms, depending on the circumstances and severity of the offense. Lawyers who are found guilty of serious misconduct, such as theft of client funds, may be suspended or disbarred from practicing law. Other types of misconduct, such as not communicating with clients or failing to diligently pursue a case, may result in a censure or reprimand.
The most common sanctions handed out to an attorney is a private letter of reprimand. Even though the letter of reprimand is confidential, it is placed in your attorney's permanent record with the disciplinary body. The letter of reprimand and your complaint remain in his or her file as long as your attorney continues to practice law. Suspension or disbarment are reserved for very serious charges and would only be imposed after a hearing in the matter in which you were required to testify.
Preventing Attorney-Client Problems
Many problems can be prevented if you know what to expect from your lawyer and how to deal with your lawyer. Some suggestions for avoiding problems include:
- Have realistic expectations about the outcome of your case;
- Get a written fee agreement and ask for prompt billings;
- Provide documentation and supporting information to your lawyer promptly;
- Write to confirm important understandings and keep track of your telephone calls to your lawyer.