August 08, 2007 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
The last thing a client wants is to change lawyers in the middle of a difficult case. Recently, two readers — from different parts of the state — wrote in with similar complaints about their attorneys. What happened to them could happen to anyone, and demonstrates why clients need to take an active — hands on — role in their case.
Britney reads this column in the Eureka Times Standard, and called on behalf of her fiancee who works for an oil company overseas. “He was married for 10 years, currently pays spousal support, but his ex-wife is able to work. We hired an attorney to take the matter back to court, to end or reduce support payments. This was in the same city where the divorce was granted, as the ex still lives there. Despite paying over $7500 almost a year ago to the lawyer, nothing has been filed. Whenever we call, there is one excuse after another and we seldom get return phone calls. What should we do??” She asked.
Adam is dealing with a lawyer who doesn’t return phone calls, as well as something apparently much worse, causing my Visalia reader to lose sleep. “I hired her several years ago to handle an employment discrimination matter and have paid a great deal of money for investigators, deposition fees and other costs of litigation. She was with a large law firm initially, and then — suddenly — went out on her own. I rarely heard anything, so, out of curiosity to see what was going on, went to the courthouse to look at my file, and was shocked.”
“The other side has successfully argued that most of my claims should be dismissed. It looks as if I am going to completely lose, and could wind up paying all of their legal costs — thousands of dollars. Also, the last time I spoke with her, she sounded drunk! What do you recommend I do?”
Communicating with the client
If there is one area that, repeatedly, gets lawyers reported to the State Bar, it is a failure to return phone calls. With over 200,000 members of the State Bar, we have our share of “problem lawyers,” as seen by even a glance at the increasing number of those disciplined or lose their license to practice law. As one of the intake clerks at the State Bar Complaint Desk told me recently, “Things have gotten worse in two areas: the failure to communicate, and taking money from a client and then not doing the work as promised.”
Hi, what’s going on?
With permission from both Britney and Adam, I phoned these two attorneys and was more than surprised. From what I heard, neither should be practicing law, and one should have left the profession years ago.
In Britney’s case, I was told the same kind of things. “Well, there is a new head clerk in the Superior Court, and things are just being sent back, as they want this and that done, and, besides, I did not get all the information from her fiancee, blah, blah, blah. . .”
So, I checked around, called other family law lawyers in that town and learned that there were no particular issues in the Clerk’s Office, but that they were getting calls about the same lawyer!
Adam’s case was far worse. His lawyer admitted that she was desperately trying to find other attorneys to take over her files, as she is suffering from a type of Parkinson’s disease. She was so disabled, that for her to even tell me what the case was about proved impossible! “How long have you been impaired?” I asked, gently. “I guess several years, at least,” she admitted, sobbing.
It’s not my problem now
Los Angeles Attorney Edward Poll, left the active practice of law after many years to help lawyers manage their practices more efficiently-founding LawBiz Management. He calls these attorneys “The underbelly of the profession — rotten apples to others, but real problems to the public in any event.
“Clients need to understand they are part of a team and need to be assertive. These two cases reveal to me more than just lawyers who probably should not be practicing law, but clients who do not understand what they must do. You have a role — a duty to yourself and possibly your family — to be alert to the progress of your case, and to find out what is going on,” he stressed.
“So often a client feels, well, I’ve just given this problem of mine to the lawyer, and I am finished with it — it’s the lawyer’s problem now. That is completely the wrong attitude.”
“With the case languishing in that lawyer’s office for years, just what was your reader doing all of this time to check on the progress of his own case?” He asked. It’s a good question.
Get your files back now!
“Your readers need to march down to their lawyer’s offices and get a copy of their files, or possibly the entire file returned now as well as reporting these incidents to the State Bar. Also, they should ask for a complete accounting of where the attorney fees or court costs went. This is required by State Law. If money has been improperly spent, the State Bar has a fund set up which might help to repay some of those funds, and I know this sounds harsh, but your readers have an element of fault in these problems. That concept — that the client is a team member and has a duty to be aware of what is going on — is fairly new to a lot of people, but it is critical,” he believes.
Better case management
Attorney Poll feels that, at the very beginning, the client must “Ask the attorney what should I expect. Tell me what are my options, chances of winning. Shame on the client who does not,” my outspoken colleague concluded. In my experience, when a client speaks up and is actively involved, it is the “Squeaky Wheel” syndrome; lawyers are certainly more attentive.
Counselor, you owe your client frequent updates on the case and the truth about where it is. “This is what I tell lawyers who are looking for ways of growing their business. As with any other business, provide good service and people will seek you out. But appear annoyed when an anxious or worried client calls, then perhaps law isn’t for you.”
“Strangely, we ask more questions when we buy a car! But not about our divorce, with a divorce lawyer!” he points out.
We tend to face litigation much as we face life. Being involved in virtually anything to do with the legal system — especially a lawsuit — is as much a challenge to our health as facing a serious disease. Worry, fear and stress in general-and how it can eat you up — can be far worse than what you might ever have imagined. Precisely for those reasons, TLC (Tender Loving Care) from your lawyer is so important.
Good lawyers can draft great contracts, wills and trusts, make a good impression with their clients and other attorneys. But it is the exceptional lawyer who has that TLC, who cares and takes the time to explain things in terms and language the client can understand. That’s the lawyer you want.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.