Relationships between clients and their attorneys do not always work out the way we want them to work out, but at what point do you put an end to a professional relationship with your attorney?
Indeed sometimes you need to tell your lawyer the truth: “I’m just not that into you.” Maybe he or she is not the one you want to fight for you in court. Perhaps there’s a lack of communication, or the attorney is unprofessional. Remember that you the client are ultimately the boss. If at any time you’re unhappy with your lawyer’s services, you can fire your lawyer.
After all, there are plenty of sharks in the sea The United States holds 5% of the world’s population and 70% of its lawyers. Law schools awarded 43,588 J.D.s last year, up 11.5 percent since 2000. In fact, the United States boasts one lawyer for every 200 U.S. citizens, but here in California we have 237,000 attorneys — that’s one lawyer for every 155 people.
It’s no wonder that the State Bar of California received 17,904 written complaints against attorneys in 2010. So don’t feel bad if things aren’t working out because lawyers, like the rest of us, are not the same.
Top 10 reasons to break up with a lawyer?
1. Poor communication: not returning telephone calls or answering questions
2. Conflict of interest: he represents a victim and the drunk driver who hit them, asks you for favors or gifts, he is good friends with the person you are suing.
3. Disagreement about direction of case, he wants to settle you want to go to trial.
4. Incompetence; not supervising his legal staff, unfamiliar with laws, lacks requisite skills necessary for your case, missing deadlines
5. Personality conflict or unethical or rude
6. He’s not giving you status updates on your case
7. He misses court deadlines and appointments or he is late
8. His license may be suspended or he doesn’t have one
9. He specializes in a different area of law and this is his first personal injury case
10. He’s flirting with your wife
Let’s just say that most lawyers are professional and they work diligently to represent you, but there are some that frankly are just not that into you or your case. Did you know that you can fire a lawyer regardless of your fee agreement? You can fire a lawyer even if your case is pending in court. Your lawyer may not have the skill necessary to handle you type of case so he could be considered incompetent. Lawyers, like doctors, specialize in areas of law such as personal injury, contracts, intellectual property, probate or family law.
“You wouldn’t ask an eye doctor to fix your broken leg just as you wouldn’t ask a real estate lawyer to handle your personal injury claim,” said Attorney West Seegmiller, founder of the Seegmiller Law Firm in Irvine, California. “This could be a reason to look elsewhere and change attorneys.”
Ignoring phone calls is rude and unprofessional and attorneys are obligated to communicate with you and keep you advised of the progress of your case. However, you should make sure you are being reasonable too. Attorneys handle many cases simultaneously and cannot be expected to talk to a client every day or sometimes every week. After all, he’s sending you the bill for his work at the time the case is settled. Unless there is something to report you may not hear from an attorney on a regular basis.
If you have information or questions for your attorney try writing a short letter and request a written response – if you are still ignored it may be time for a change.
Attorneys who ignore their clients will often have other troubles. The California State Bar publicizes a list of attorneys who have been reprimanded or disbarred every month. One recent entry was for former attorney Drago Campa, 45, of Los Angeles.
Campa was disbarred on August 13, 2011 for ten acts of misconduct in two matters. In the first matter, he settled a personal injury claim, but didn’t pay client’s medical bill or respond to client inquires. In the second matter, Campa practiced law in a jurisdiction where he was not admitted, made misrepresentations to the court, submitted a false declaration to the court, didn’t account for an $80,000 fee and committed acts of moral turpitude.
When one of Campa’s clients fired him, the lawyer didn’t release his the client’s case file. The report specified one particular case where Campa was paid $80,000 to represent a client in Hawaii. The client had various narcotic related offenses, but Campa was not licensed to practice in Hawaii. Still he took the case and Campa told the court he had filed an application to practice pro hac vice in the state. There was no record of his application. Campa was ordered to file the application, but was late and it was denied.
Mechanics of the breakup:
Before you fire an attorney get a second opinion about your case
• Most lawyers will offer you a free consultation
• Do not wait too long before you request a second opinion
• Remember time is of the essence
• Statutes of limitations are a factor
• Perhaps your lawyer is insisting you settle a case and you think you should go to trial
• Maybe you think the lawyer is incompetent
• Maybe the lawyer lacks the necessary skills needed for your case because it’s complex or complicated
Most lawyers have you sign a contract with them before they start working on a case and a good lawyer will spell out in their written contracts what will happen either if they quit or you fire them. So let’s say you’ve decided to find a new lawyer now what do you do?
First, you should terminate your relationship in writing by certified mail, specify the date and time of termination. This will help avoid any confusion as to your expectations for the attorney’s services and his claims for fees and costs. Next, it is important that you get your file from the first attorney. Assuming you’ve paid your legal bill, your file is your property, and your new lawyer is going to need it to continue your case.
The lawyer may be able to keep your file until you’ve paid your bill. If there is a dispute about the bill, getting the file could become an issue. Your attorney is entitled to payment for services rendered up to the time of dismissal, in accordance with your fee agreement. If this is the situation, ask your new attorney to help in the negotiations and confirm her share of any eventual award or settlement.
“The new attorney will likely have to pay the first attorney for his work out of your settlement,” Seegmiller explains. “Be aware that firing a lawyer after a lawsuit has been filed usually requires the court’s permission.”
If the case is close to trial, the court may be reluctant to grant permission for dismissal if it’ll delay the proceedings unless the court finds you have good cause under the circumstances to discharge your attorney.
Keep in mind that a new lawyer may be starting from scratch, The lawyer will have to get up to speed on your case, which may be an additional cost. At that point you might also want to contact the appropriate lawyer disciplinary authorities.
Can my lawyer drop me as a client?
• Certainly, but they cannot drop you because they are not making money
• Nor because they got a more lucrative case
• Nor because the matter is taking longer than anticipated.
• If your case is in active litigation the lawyer will need the judge’s authorization.
Some common reasons the lawyer will drop a case include:
1. Conflict of interest
2. Nonpayment of legal services
3. Poor client communication
The biggest complaint against lawyers is of course money. Most people are afraid to go to an attorney’s office to talk to him because they don’t know how much it’s going to cost them. By far it’s the top complaint of clients about their attorneys
Attorney West Seegmiller, a legal radio show host for “West of Legal” which airs Sundays at 1 p.m. on KFWB News 980, has been a personal injury attorney for more than 30 years. His Irvine law firm works on contingency fee basis.
“At our firm, there is no money paid unless there is a settlement.” Seegmiller said. “The firm advances the cost of the case and fees are contingent upon the outcome. If the case is won the firm is paid a percentage out of the settlement. Typical contingency fees are one third of a settlement or 40% of a case goes to trial.”
Other types of lawyers will charge by the hour and ask for a retainer fee up front. If you have a dispute over money with a lawyer, ask them for an explanation of the charge. Be straightforward. Errors, misunderstandings, and adjustments agreeable to both parties can be made. If there is a stalemate, read your written agreement because some lawyers require that fee disputes be resolved through arbitration.
Attorneys get into plenty of trouble over mishandling clients money.
Attorney James Friend Jordan, 61, of Palm Desert, was a personal injury lawyer who was disbarred on July 28, 2011 for misappropriating more than $200,000 of his client’s settlement funds, failure to account for his client’s funds, failure to maintain those funds in trust and failure to release the file to a new lawyer.
The client was a retired tractor driver who was nearly killed in a car crash and required extensive medical treatment and convalescence. The client had brain and head injuries and the lawyer had settled the case for $739,043. The money was deposited money in client trust account and a payment of $238,507 was given to him as his share.
Additionally, the lawyer was required to maintain $254,188 for medical expenses after taking his fees, but instead he gradually depleted the account until there was only $9,041 left in it. The lawyer finally withdrew the last $5,000 just days after the bar filed disciplinary charges against him.
The client’s doctors sued him for $274,304. The client finally fired the lawyer, but the lawyer ignored repeated requests to send the client’s file to the new lawyer or account for funds. Eventually, the medical providers agreed to accept $162,000, but ultimately they received nothing. Jordan had three prior disciplinary actions against him and had previously failed to properly pay out trust funds to or on behalf of clients
Newport Beach-based Attorney Melanie Rae Blum was once called a hero. She obtained justice for women whose eggs were stolen in the UC Irvine fertility clinic scandal. Recently, the attorney faced 10 counts of grand theft stemming from 7 fertility cases and 3 others (1992-1999)
She was sentenced to four years in state prison for her crime. Prosecutors said she stole the money in part to fund a lavish lifestyle of luxury cars and expensive clothes. Her ex-husband Mark Roseman was apparently in charge of finances at the firm. Roseman also got four years and testified against his former wife at trial. She blamed him for the stolen money. Prosecutors said Blum still owed $680,000 in settlement money. She claimed she was broke, but court officials learned she opened a bank account in Antigua.
So how do you find a good attorney? First, check out a potential lawyer’s credentials. Also, check the local California Bar Association to make sure they are in good standing and to make sure they are actually a lawyer and they are licensed.
According to an article in the New York Times dated May 13, 1988 Michael P. Fontana, a 10-year veteran of Sonnenschein, had never taken the Illinois bar examination, but he worked as a lawyer at the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein Carlin Nath & Rosenthal.
The firm’s representatives appeared in federal court requesting to withdraw one of its partners from a civil case after they learned that the partner, a highly regarded trial specialist, had never been licensed to practice law. Not only was he not licensed, but he had never graduated from law school either.
He had completed nearly three years at the University of Michigan Law School, but he had left in 1977, one credit short of graduation. There was a criminal investigation of Mr. Fontana, but also the firm faced charges of malpractice for not finding him out earlier.
Attorney/client relationships are a fiduciary one where there is a special relation of trust, confidence or responsibility in certain obligations to another person. A lawyer must act with good faith and loyalty to a client
So how do you find a good lawyer?
• Word of mouth and referrals
• Local bar associations
• Referrals from other local attorneys
• Internet resources
• Legal aid services
• Steer clear of lawyers who avoid trial
• Don’t hire a friend unless he or she is an experienced lawyer who specializes in the area of law you are seeking help
• Lawyers specialize in areas of law.
• Lawyers are required to be competent and take only those cases that they are able to handle
• Personal injury lawyers handle claims for injuries
• Real estate lawyers handle real estate cases
• Criminal lawyers handle criminal cases
• Choose attorney with experience
• Check their testimonials
• Tough attorneys v. attorneys with a good court-side manner.
• A good lawyer is like a doctor who has a good bedside manner
• Attorneys are perceived as cold, tough guys, arrogant
• Find someone who is trustworthy, uses plain language you can understand
• They communicate with you and explain the process so you can understand it
• Someone who is like a father who genuinely cares about you, they are kind.
Want to hear more about this and other legal topics? Listen to the West of Legal radio show at the Seegmiller Law Firm website.
The Seegmiller Law Firm can be reached at 1-855-ASK–WEST. For over 30 years, the firm has been a staunch advocate for victims’ rights and has fought for clients involved in personal injury and wrongful death cases, including premises liability, product liability, auto accidents, dog bites, nursing home negligence, medical malpractice, at-work injuries and more. The firm has offices in Irvine, Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada.