It usually begins with a lack of communication. Your calls go unanswered and you hear nothing about your case for weeks or months. Maybe you get the sense that the lawyer's files are in disarray, or that he or she doesn’t remember the details of your matter from one meeting to the next.
First, you rationalize: “She’s really busy and I know I'm not her only client. She seemed so nice and knowledgeable at our first meeting. I’m sure she’s on top of things. The legal system is just really, really slow.”
But then you start to wonder, “Is my case getting the attention it needs from my lawyer?”
It might be time to have a serious conversation with your attorney; or consider switching attorneys entirely.
Warning Signs That an Attorney-Client Relationship Isn't Working
Here are some common warning signs that your relationship with your lawyer needs examination:
- Your calls aren’t returned within 48 hours (provided you’re respectful of the lawyer’s time, major holidays, and don’t call several times a week with “just another quick question”).
- You are asked to provide documents you have already provided or to fill out forms you’ve already filled out. Mistakes do happen, but a good lawyer should keep organized files and be able to find all of the paperwork related to your case in one place.
- Your lawyer asks for repeated time extensions from the court without a good explanation (and without it serving your best interests).
- You receive notices from the court or from another party saying that a deadline has been missed or that your case is about to be dismissed for lack of activity.
- Documents you have been promised aren’t ready when they're supposed to be. Everybody has emergencies now and then, but if this happens repeatedly, there could be a problem.
If you recognize some or all of these issues in your relationship with your lawyer, it is probably time to make your concerns known.
Getting a Second Opinion
It can be hard to know whether the problem is with your attorney or something bigger, such as a bogged down court system or uncooperative third parties. You might wish to schedule an appointment with another attorney to evaluate your case. Be sure to bring the entire contents of your file.
Doublecheck the Attorney's State Bar Status
You hopefully ran your attorney's name through the website of your state's bar association before hiring him or her, but now might be a good time to do so again. Even if your attorney is in good standing now, any past suspensions or other disciplinary actions for issues like substance abuse or misuse of client funds should give you pause.
Raising the Issues With Your Attorney
Firing your lawyer may not be the right step at this point. Rather, it may be worth raising your concerns in a polite, calm, and professional fashion. If you feel more comfortable expressing these thoughts in writing, send the lawyer a letter or an email. If you prefer face-to-face interaction, call for an appointment.
Whichever route you go, be specific about what's bothering you. List the particular instances where you think the lawyer has done something that gives you concern. Ask for an explanation, and be open-minded if the lawyer offers reasons for the lapses.
For example, the lawyer may tell you that he’s been involved in a month-long trial, taking him out of the day-to-day operations of his firm. Or he might tell you that his mother has been in the hospital. Or he might simply apologize, admit that he’s been negligent in handling your matter, and promise to do better.
As the client, it is up to you whether to ‘believe’ your lawyer’s explanations or not. In considering whether to change attorneys, realize that a new attorney may not necessarily be any more helpful or responsive. For example, if your case is moving slowly through the court system simply because the court is backlogged (as is often the case), a new lawyer may not move the process along any fast than the old one.
Making the Change
If you still think the relationship is unsalvageable, it might be time to terminate the engagement and switch to a new attorney. However, there are a few issues to keep in mind:
- Unless absolutely necessary, don’t fire one lawyer before you have identified the next one you plan to hire. If your case has already begun, the judge may not let your old lawyer leave the case until a new lawyer replaces him or her.
- Seek referrals for your next lawyer. Call your local bar association and ask for someone with the expertise your case requires.
- In most U.S. states, a lawyer cannot withhold your file from you because of an unpaid bill. However, anything in the file that was created by the lawyer is considered his or her “work product” and need not be provided to the new attorney. Only documents you gave to the lawyer or those the lawyer received from others have to be turned over.
- Expect that it will take a bit of time for your new lawyer to get up to speed on the case and that you will be billed for this time, if the new lawyer charges by the hour.
- Clients who change lawyers more than once often find they have increasing difficulty finding new lawyers to take the case. Judges may also become annoyed if a client appears to be “lawyer shopping” and causing delays in the court docket. Changing lawyers repeatedly is seen by many attorneys as the mark of a difficult client or one who has unreasonable expectations.
Making the decision to change attorneys can be a painful one, but finding the right lawyer can make all the difference in the outcome of your case. As long as your expectations are reasonable, follow your instincts and be sure you are comfortable with your attorney.