Lawyers are human. Sometimes they make legal errors when representing clients. Sometimes they make bad decisions and are charged with crimes. Like anyone else, they have to pay for their mistakes.
Lawyers have to follow a code of ethics. Each state has its own ethics code or rules, but generally they set out how attorneys are expected to act while in their professional dealings.
The vast majority of lawyers follow the rules. However, for those who don't, each state has a disciplinary counsel or some other body that investigates and punishes code violations.
Typically, an office of disciplinary counsel investigates only problems reported to them through a formal complaint process. Often, complaints come from clients. But, they're filed by other attorneys, too.
Common complaints by clients include:
- Failing to communicate with the client
- Not returning the client's documents
- Not safeguarding the client's property
- A conflict of interest, such as when the lawyer represents two clients on opposite sides of the same case
- Misrepresentation by the attorney. For instance, when an attorney says he has a lot of experience in your type of case when in fact he has little or none
- Misplacing client funds, refusing to pay over money owed to a client, or improper billing procedures
Filing a Complaint
If a problem comes up, you have to file a complaint with the disciplinary counsel in the state where the lawyer is licensed. Generally, you have to:
- Fill out a form provided by the state bar association; or
- Write a detailed letter. It should include the lawyer's name, address, phone number, why you hired the lawyer, a description of the problem and any other information the bar association may request; or
- In some states, you can file a complaint by calling a hotline
In most cases, a board of lawyers and non-lawyers reviews the complaint. If there might be an ethical violation, the lawyer is usually given a copy of the complaint and some time to respond to it.
In some states, you're given a chance to comment on the lawyer's response and to request an investigation. The case will either be dismissed if there's no evidence of a violation, or it will remain open. If the violation is minor, a phone call or letter to the lawyer usually ends the matter. A hearing is set up for serious violations.
Most information about the case is kept confidential until it's released to the lawyer in question. Some states don't allow anonymous cases because documentation is important. Your signature has to be on the complaint or letter in case you're needed to testify in court.
Some states allow anonymous complaints if the problems impact the general public. Also, they may be allowed in cases where counsel doesn't need more information from the clients. When allowed, you usually have to request anonymity when you file the complaint form or letter or during your call to the hotline.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can an attorney represent both spouses in a divorce action?
- Is it an ethical violation if my attorney doesn't tell me about settlement offers in my case?
- Can an attorney withhold his fees from money I won in a suit even if I have questions about some items and charges he billed me for?
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