“I was in a car accident several months ago and hired a personal injury attorney almost immediately. Initially, she was very responsive, returned my calls promptly, keeping me informed of everything. Then, suddenly, silence. I leave messages, am promised a call-back, but nothing!
“Treatment for my injuries is on a lien basis with bills to be paid when the case is resolved, but now I don’t know what to do. Should I change lawyers? Thanks, Darlene.”
Unhappy or pressured to change lawyers?
I ran Darlene’s question by a friend of this column, Southern California personal injury attorney Shawn Steel. His law practice is unique in that he not only represents accident victims, but also health care professionals, “Who have been badly dealt with by lawyers refusing to honor their contracts with doctors to pay their bills when the case settles.”
Steel provided practical advice for health care providers facing that situation in a recent article I wrote, “When Lawyers Refuse to Pay a Client's Doctor Bill”
As he explained, the question of “to change or not to change lawyers” comes up under two different scenarios:
–You’ve hired a lawyer on a contingent fee basis, but are not satisfied with the legal services provided, or;
–You are being pressured into changing lawyers by friends, family members or–which is illegal in most states–some other attorney who wants your case.
Steel set out four questions client often ask:
(1) Do I have to give a reason before changing lawyers?
(2) Will I owe the first lawyer for time spent on my case?
(3) Should I wait and see if things get better?
(4) I signed a lien with the lawyer to pay bills, but if I change attorneys, what happens to that lien?
“You do not need a reason to change lawyers, and what your reader has described is one of the most common - a failure to communicate, ignoring you,” Steel points out.
“But don’t fire your lawyer just because your phone call wasn’t returned immediately! You’ve got to be reasonable. And keep in mind that your old attorney has a right to be paid by the new attorney out of settlement proceeds.
“When you feel the relationship is a bad fit, end it immediately. Two or three months is no problem. Lawyers will take your case as not much of a fee has been earned in that short amount of time. Simply stated, the older the case, the less desirable it is to the new attorney and even good cases get rejected for that reason,” he underscores.
What Happens to the Lien I Signed with the First Lawyer to Pay My Bills?
Financially an auto accident can become a nightmare lasting years if medical and chiropractic bills aren’t paid. Clients often think, “But as I had a lien with the first lawyer, it automatically transfers to the second lawyer, right?”
“Unfortunately, that’s not the law,” Steel emphasizes.
“Changing lawyers extinguishes the lien. Unless a new lien is signed by everyone, a potential costly problem for the patient is around the corner, and this is my advice to health care professionals and their patients:
(1) Health care providers - When becoming aware your patient has a new lawyer, immediately get a new lien signed. If the attorney refuses, bill the client at once - don’t wait! Also, occasionally ask patients if they have the same lawyer.
(2) Patients - It is potentially damaging to your credit and even to the ability of getting a job in some circumstances--if your case has been settled without the health care providers being paid and you wind up being sued. If you change lawyers, immediately notify all of your health care providers of this fact, with the name, address and phone number of the new lawyer. If you do not, you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket and could be hounded by a collection agency or taken to court.
Resist Pressure to Change Lawyers
Everyone has a ‘know-it-all’ relative who will claim to know more that your lawyer, or has ‘a friend’ who is an attorney, ‘So just drop the lawyer you hired and go with my guy!”
“Clients hear that often,” Steel notes, and warns his own clients that before doing anything, when hearing such advice from family members, ‘Just talk with me.’
“But that’s tame by comparison to lawyers who illegally attempt to steal cases involving serious injury, where the settlement value can be extremely high,” he observes.
“There are predators out there, people who work for lawyers and get an illegal kickback. If you get approached, call your lawyer right-a-way, as it is illegal for anyone from another law firm to contact you if you are already represented.”