What if your lawyer settles your case without your knowledge or permission?
Or what if your lawyer keeps your settlement money for himself?
What can you do if your lawyer forgets to file court papers or misses a court deadline and thereby loses your case?
These are serious breaches of a lawyer's professional conduct, but minor problems can be irritating too. Maybe you don't like your lawyer's personality or can't understand him or don't agree with his trial strategy. Perhaps he just won't return your phone calls.
What can you do if you have a problem with your lawyer? The State Bar of California has tried to answer that question in a free pamphlet. Here are some of the State Bar's suggestions with a few of my own thrown in.
If your problems are only of the "irritating" variety, you can change lawyers. You don't need a reason. But it may cost some extra money.
You'll still have to pay your old lawyer for the work he's done. A new lawyer will have to review your file, and if he's billing by the hour, you'll have to pay for the time it takes him to catch up with your case. That's one reason why you should first try to work out any problems you have with your existing lawyer.
Your old lawyer must return any documents you gave him. You'll also want a copy of any documents he has filed in court on your behalf. Of course, if he has been a conscientious lawyer, and you've been a prudent client, you already have copies of all court pleadings because you made certain at the beginning of your relationship to require your lawyer to send you copies of all his work and all court documents filed in your case.
If you want to try to work things out with your existing lawyer, and he happens to practice law in Los Angeles County, you can seek assistance from the County Bar Assn.'s client relations committee. It operates an informal mediation program staffed by volunteer attorneys.
Once a complaint is received on a standard complaint form, a volunteer attorney is assigned to your case. The volunteer attorney will contact your attorney, informally mediate your dispute and suggest solutions. If nothing else, the intervention may make your attorney pay attention. But the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. cannot discipline your attorney or compel him to respond to your complaints.
If your problem with your lawyer is more serious, you can sue him. Just like doctors and other professionals, a lawyer can be sued successfully for malpractice, if his or her negligence caused you damage. For example, if your lawyer forgot a court deadline or didn't research a legal issue properly, you can sue and try to collect from your lawyer the monetary award you would have won if the lawyer had "done the job right."
If you want to explore this possibility, you should find a lawyer who is experienced in legal malpractice cases. Check with your local bar association for possible referrals.
For serious ethical breaches, you should complain to the State Bar, in person or in writing. Call the State Bar offices in San Francisco or Los Angeles for a copy of the complaint form. You can send the complaint in a letter, but the form is preferable because it will help you provide the kind of information needed to begin the disciplinary process.
You should send in any documentation that supports your complaint. A lawyer will not be disciplined without adequate proof. The complaint will be reviewed by a staff attorney or investigator. If there is sufficient evidence of unethical conduct or wrongdoing, a formal hearing will be held.
Be patient. There is a tremendous backlog of complaints, and it could take up to two years before final action is taken.
Disciplinary action may take the form of a public or private reproof, suspension, probation or disbarment. The State Bar may recommend that an attorney be suspended from practice or disbarred, but only the state Supreme Court can actually issue such an order.
The most serious charges--those that could lead to disbarment--usually involve a lawyer's misappropriation of his client's funds or his criminal conviction on a charge involving moral turpitude. But lawyers who repeatedly abandon their clients' cases and fail to perform legal services may also face suspension from practice or disbarment.
You can check with the State Bar to find out if a particular lawyer has ever been publicly reproved, suspended, placed on probation or disbarred.
The State Bar also operates a Client Security Fund available to compensate clients who have no other way to obtain the return of their money (up to $50,000) wrongfully appropriated by their lawyers. Last year, the State Bar paid more than $750,000 to clients out of this fund.
To find out more about these issues, write State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco 94102. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope, and ask for the pamphlet "What Can I Do If I Have a Problem With My Lawyer?"
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.