Sunday, January 13, 2008

How to Know a Family Lawyer is Doing His Job


More than likely, you have used the services of an attorney, whether to write a will, fight a speeding ticket, buy a house or represent us in some other civil matter. You may have received bills for services where every minute spent by the attorney or his staff is listed in excruciating detail. How do you know if your family attorney is doing a good job for you?

Assuming that you've chosen an attorney after some sensible research, you should be an informed consumer of legal services. Ask yourself a few questions--and if you don't know the answer, ask your attorney before taking further action. Read on to learn more.


Difficulty: Moderate

Things You'll Need

  • Access to the Internet or a public library



Step One

Are you informed of court dates, filings and other events in your case's history? Frequently, if a litigant (that's you) is represented by an attorney, courts send notices of appearance to the attorney of record, presuming that the attorney will communicate with her client. If you miss an appearance, the court may find against you, so it's important for you to keep track of appearances. Attorneys who forget appearances or ask for adjournments (re-scheduling) frequently may have too much work or too little help to give your case the attention it requires.

Step Two

Is your attorney prepared when you talk to him or he appears in court with you? Many attorneys read volumes and are accomplished pack rats. This is OK if your attorney is able to pull the current draft of your will out of that stack of paper on the fourth shelf of the bookcase behind his desk. If he takes too long to find things, you're probably financing some search time. Lawyers start and stop dozens of jobs in a work day and the atmosphere in many law offices alternates between that of a circus and a tomb. As a client, you should find your legal representative and staff ready to focus on your case and use their (your) time wisely and productively.

Step Three

If your case involves court appearances, is your attorney there early to explain what's about to happen and what you should do (presumably your attorney has told you to dress neatly and to stand up when the judge enters or stands)? Your attorney should explain to you what to expect in court--and what sort of procedure will be followed. You deserve to have your questions answered and you deserve it in terms you understand.

Step Four

Do you have questions about your attorney's work or ethics? You can consult your state's attorney discipline organization to find out if there have been complaints about her. These organizations are variously known as attorney discipline, attorney regulation or attorney ethics boards or offices and are generally organized by your state's Attorney General or supreme court. State bar associations and attorneys general often have attorney grievance committees. All of these organizations maintain public records of discipline.

Step Five

Do you trust your attorney? Sometimes personalities just don't mesh. Sometimes clients want a friend instead of an advocate. And sometimes, lawyers are just too busy to take another case but can't turn it down for one reason or another. If you don't think that your attorney is serving your best interests, let him know why. Maybe it can be cleared up. Maybe he'll say you should seek other counsel. Either way, you'll have your concerns out on the table and feel better about your choice to go or stay.

Step Six

If you have suspicions, check with an organization in your state that keeps track of lawyer complaints. Some index websites are listed below, beginning with the American Bar Association.

Step Seven

If you do change attorneys, be sure to ask that a copy of your file be forwarded to your new attorney. You will need to sign a release for this to be done.

Tips & Warnings

  • Most state bar associations have staff that are willing to answer questions about attorney performance. Do not expect them to deal with a specific situation or give you legal advice, though. They can tell you what the code of ethics is in your state, but cannot take sides in a dispute. Most bar association and state court system websites will have a link to the state's attorney code of ethics.
  • Always be civil. Most mistakes committed by attorneys are due to lack of time or organization and they will gladly address your concerns. In cases where incompetence or an ethics violations is actually at issue, rather than yelling at the attorney, file a complaint with your state's Attorney General or court system's office or board of attorney regulation or discipline. Making a complaint to the right body may save someone else the grief you've gone through.
  • Attorneys practice in all sorts of ways from solo general practitioners to partners or associates in large multinational firms. It is usually easier to answer questions about whether your solo or small-firm lawyer is doing a good job for you. But large firms will do just as good a job and have wider resources to draw upon. In a large firm, you may not always deal with the same lawyer but if you're frequently passed on to a paralegal or some other member of the firm, start asking questions.
  • Do not expect an attorney representing, say, your parents to talk to you about their affairs unless your parents have instructed her to do so. Privacy regulations and legal ethics dictate that attorney-client discussions are privileged, meaning they belong only to the attorney and client.

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