When you hire a lawyer to represent you, you expect them to conduct themselves professionally at all times. However, they are human and are, therefore, not beyond reproach. While you can overlook some mistakes because they’re easily fixable, there are some which could cost you your case.
If your lawyer fails to live up to their ethical obligations to you as their client, you can seek recourse through the legal system. In this article, we take an in-depth look at how to file a complaint against a lawyer.
Rules of Professional Conduct
To keep the public safe from the unscrupulous practices of corrupt lawyers, the American Bar Association came up with a set of rules and guidelines to promote integrity among members of the legal fraternity. These Model Rules of Professional Conduct list standard best practices for lawyers and explicitly define what constitutes an ethical violation.
While each state might adopt the model rules as their guide, others use them in their entirety as their own ethical rules. Each state is at liberty to modify or add to the rules as they see fit.
Nevertheless, all states share four common denominators as pertains to ethical issues covered by the rules. They are:
- What constitutes a conflict of interest, and how do you avoid it?
- Regulations surrounding legal fees
- How to handle client funds
- Issues revolving around client communication
In an ideal world, these rules would suffice to keep every lawyer in check. However, even with the best of intentions, some fall short, in which case, it is within your rights to file a complaint against them. So, what are some of the most common grievances from clients?
Reasons to File a Complaint Against an Attorney
There’s a myriad of reasons that could cause you to file a complaint against your lawyer. Some of the most common ones include:
Anytime you retain a lawyer; you do it with the confidence that they’re skilled enough to take on your case and give you the best representation possible. They need to be competent enough to handle any issues that come up in the course of your case-progression. They should be capable of dealing with settlement negotiations, trials, and everything in between to give you the best outcome.
2. Financial Matters
If your lawyer misplaces steals or refuses to hand over funds owed to you stemming from a legal proceeding, you can file a complaint against them. Moreover, if you feel that your attorney is charging you an exorbitant amount in legal fees that also constitutes an ethics violation.
3. Conflicts of Interest
A lawyer needs to be able to identify situations that may lead to a conflict of interest. For instance, it is unacceptable for your attorney to take on a new client who wants to sue you knowing full well that it would cause a conflict of interest. Those are justifiable grounds for filing a complaint against your lawyer.
4. Failure to Return a Client’s File
All documents used in the defense of your case are considered to be your property. If you fire your lawyer and request them for your file, they have to return it to you promptly.
If the lawyer fails to do this, you can file a complaint against them. Nonetheless, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules that apply to your state.
For instance, if you live in California, the lawyer is obligated to return the file regardless of whether or not you’ve settled the required attorney fees in full. This might not be the set regulation in other states.
5. Communication Failure
When you retain a lawyer, they are obligated to keep you abreast with all the ins and outs of your case. They need to provide you with regular status updates and promptly respond to any inquiries you may have.
They also need to consult you before making any decisions that could alter the outcome of your case. For instance, they need to seek your approval before accepting a settlement offer from the opposing side. You can file a complaint against them if they fail on this front.
Can You Sue a Lawyer? What You Need to Know
Before you can sue a lawyer, you need to establish if they committed an ethical violation or malpractice. In the case of the latter, then you can sue them.
Suing a lawyer for legal malpractice is one of the most difficult cases to win. You need first to determine whether you have a plausible case, to begin with. There must be solid evidence that they violated the Rules of Professional Conduct and that it caused you to incur a financial loss. Malpractice suits usually fall under one or all of the following categories:
- Negligence: They didn’t use the skills expected from any competent lawyer
- Breach of fiduciary duty: They violated your confidentiality agreement
- Breach of contract: They violated a specific clause of your attorney-client contract
After you’ve determined that you have a case, here’s how to sue a lawyer for incompetence:
- Get your case file from your attorney
- Gather your proof and list of potential witnesses
- Retain a competent legal malpractice attorney to represent you
- Your attorney will then serve a complaint against the lawyer you’re suing to kick-off the litigation process
- Get deposed
- Attempt to settle
- If that fails, go to trial
Due to the complexity and volatile nature of malpractice lawsuits, it is always better to consider some alternatives that are more likely to get you the outcome you desire. Remember, there’s malpractice insurance for lawyers and it helps them deal with the costs related to the defense of a malpractice suit against them.
You, on the other hand, have to foot those costs out-of-pocket. So, it’s something worth thinking over before going that route. Instead of suing your lawyer, consider reporting them to your state’s disciplinary board.
How to File a Complaint with the State Disciplinary Board
To begin with, you have to file a complaint in the state where the lawyer is licensed to practice. Here’s how to go about it:
- Mail a state-issued complaint form to the board. It should have your name and contact information as well as that of the lawyer
- The board will allow the lawyer to respond to the claim
- All evidence presented will be investigated. If it deems that no violation took place, then they will dismiss your case and notify you of the same
- For grave offenses, the board holds evidentiary hearings
- At the end of the process, punitive action is taken against the lawyer in question
State disciplinary boards exist to discipline errant lawyers. It’s important to note, however, that you might not be compensated for your losses. If that’s what you seek, then you need to pursue a malpractice lawsuit.
If you have more legal questions, you can also chat online with a Laws101.com attorney where you’ll be instantly connected to a lawyer who can give you legal guidance on your specific case or question.