What do you do if you think your lawyer is sneaky, dishonest or unethical? Some people expect their lawyers to be sneaky--at least when they are dealing with courtroom opponents. But if you believe your lawyer has been dishonest with you, unethical or grossly incompetent, you should complain to the State Bar Assn. of California.
And you can do it by calling a toll-free phone number: (800) 843-9053. The State Bar Assn. was criticized earlier this year because the toll-free phone number was not widely publicized. Now, the phone number has been added to a newly revised booklet published by the Bar: "What Can I Do if I Have a Problem With My Lawyer?"
The booklet, which is available free to the public, is part of a series of consumer pamphlets published by the Bar. (For a copy of the pamphlet, send a stamped, self-addressed business-size envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, Dept. R, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102.)
The Bar, under increasing scrutiny from the state Legislature, recently announced significant budget cuts, including a cutoff in the funding of its monthly magazine, California Lawyer. There is some concern that the popular consumer pamphlet program will also be hit by the cuts.
Much of the program pays for itself, because lawyers, judges and businesses buy the pamphlets in bulk and distribute them to clients and customers, according to Patricia E. Lerman, community education manager. But the Bar does foot the bill for the program staff costs.
Terry Anderlini, the president of the state Bar, acknowledged that changes in the consumer information pamphlet program are being considered, including the possibility of fees for some of the pamphlets now available without charge.
"We are trying to cut costs and still continue providing information to the public," he said. Although no decisions have yet been made, Anderlini said he is hoping for private enterprise to participate in the program.
The Bar publishes 15 pamphlets on topics such as wills, small claims court and child custody, and distributes more than 600,000 copies of the pamphlets in total. Many readers of this column have been enthusiastic recipients of the pamphlets.
In addition to the toll-free phone number in the newly revised pamphlet, you'll find a new emphasis. "We tell people what they can do in addition to or instead of using the bar's lawyer discipline system," explains Lerman. "The discipline system only punishes the lawyer; it does not provide a remedy for the client's underlying legal problem.
"If a lawyer makes a serious mistake," she said, "one option is to complain to the state bar; the other is to consider suing the lawyer for malpractice."
Fee Arbitration System
The pamphlet also explains the fee arbitration system you can use if you believe your lawyer's bill is unfair.
The pamphlet warns that a "single, honest mistake is not a violation of legal ethics." A lawyer cannot be disciplined for one unintentional mistake.
Some of the serious breaches of legal ethics include: a lawyer who stops working on your case, won't return your files to you, settles your case without your knowledge or permission, lies to you or keeps your share of a money judgment.
The new pamphlet is also easier to read, with larger, simplified text.