Last week we answered this question: “If my lawyer rips me off, is there any official organization that can help me be reimbursed?”
As we learned, fortunately California and all state bar Associations have a Client Security Fund. “While a slow process which can take several years, the goal,” observes attorney Lori Meloch, Director of the California State Bar Client Security Fund, “is to compensate clients who have been the victim of the two percent of lawyers who are dishonest.”
Lawyers are required to act competently and honestly, but how is a client to know when something’s wrong? Right now you’re probably thinking, “What are the signs that I’ve got a problem with my lawyer, and what should I do about it?”
First Red Flag - An Inability to Communicate With Your Lawyer
To Los Angeles-based, attorney malpractice specialist Ron Makarem, a failure to call the client back is incredibly significant.
“Anytime there is an inability by a client to communicate with the lawyer, this is the first red flag. A client should become concerned when:
- The attorney does not return phone calls in a reasonable amount of time, and;
- In a meeting with the client, if the lawyer is being very short, taking phone calls, trying to re-schedule, not giving enough time to the client, does not listen, ignores what is asked or is not answering questions.
“Not being diligent in communications with clients is when mistakes happen. While there can be reasons for a delay — such as being in trial or out of town — it is reasonable to expect a return call within 24 hours or a quick email which communicates, ‘I got your message. I’ll call back as soon as I can and you will have all my attention.’
“This is reassuring to clients,” he underscores.
Excuses and Avoiding Clients - Don’t Make This Mistake!
Failing to promptly return a client’s call is the leading complaint made to every state bar in the United States.
“Frequently an indication of substance abuse, problems with the lawyer’s personal life or mental health issues, avoiding clients and making excuses is often an attempt to hide dishonesty, or legal malpractice, such as statute of limitations or filing deadlines issues,” Meloch points out.
To Makarem, “When your lawyer fails to call you back, you’ve got to be concerned; you need to act. Send an email or letter to the lawyer, documenting that you have not received a return call despite having left several messages, and ask for a response by a certain day.
“Do this once or twice, and if those phone calls and follow-up emails are not responded to, it is time to part ways with that lawyer. The common mistake clients make is feeling that it is too difficult to switch attorneys. But it is not, and should occur more often than it does.”
“These red flags occur all the time and clients do not understand how easy it is to change attorneys. It’s a sign of things to come when your lawyer doesn’t call you back and you don’t know the reasons why. In trial or on vacation might be valid explanations, but when you don’t get that communication, it is time to get a new lawyer,” he maintains.
“Your Case is a Slam Dunk Win” Really?? In Trouble with the Bar?
Makarem believes in the importance of interviewing more than one attorney before reaching a hiring decision. “It is not a good idea to hire the first lawyer who you interview,” he cautions, adding, “Because you will benefit from hearing different legal opinions.”
We agree with that recommendation, especially if you hear, “Your case is a slam-dunk. We can’t lose.” Of course there is no such thing. Even what seems to be a winner of a case can be lost. Lawyers cannot legally guarantee a result.
“Ideally, you want to meet in person with a minimum of two lawyers, or spend some time on the phone discussing your case with attorneys who routinely handle your type of a matter. Some lawyers do not charge for a consultation, while others do, and they often agree to waive that fee if they are not hired,” Makrem concluded.
In most states, if a lawyer has been disciplined by the state bar, this information is a public record and available online. In California, visit www.calbar.org, in the Attorney Search box just type in the lawyer’s name and you’ll find out the status of their license to practice law, as well as any disciplinary action taken against them.