HELP! I am Not Sure My Lawyer Knows What He’s Doing…

HELP! I am Not Sure My Lawyer Knows What He’s Doing…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same story from a potential client. They’ve hired a lawyer to deal with an important case and, for one reason or another, they’re worried. It could be that their lawyer isn’t diligent about returning their calls or emails, seems unfamiliar with the law, there’s no obvious case strategy, or, worst of all, they’re concerned their lawyer may be misappropriating their money. While the “red flags” are all different, the result is the same. They’re worried and want to hear some options on fixing the problem. I’ll tell you what I tell them.

First, there’s no magic wand. I don’t know what your lawyer knows, all the history of your relationship, your lawyer’s work ethic, case strategy, etc. While there is some definite value in a second opinion, another lawyer’s critique your lawyer’s work won’t always produce a fair analysis of the situation. Reasonable minds can differ as to an appropriate strategy or process and, though I may not agree with what your lawyer’s done, it’s possible (and, often, likely) that your lawyer hasn’t committed any legal malpractice.

Second, bad customer service doesn’t always mean malpractice. Though many canons of professional ethics require lawyers to keep their clients reasonably apprised of the status of their case (meaning: the lawyer must communicate with their client with reasonable frequency), it’s not fair to assume that the lawyer is doing a bad job if he/she doesn’t call you back in 24 hours. Hopefully, your lawyer has a thriving practice and healthy personal life that keeps them busy. If they don’t call back immediately, it’s not always cause for concern. If, however, they (or someone else from the office) doesn’t call back after a day or two, that can develop into a problem. As a rule of thumb, if you try to make contact and don’t hear back from anyone at the law office after a week, call again and complain. If, even after that, you don’t get a response in a reasonable period of time, it’s acceptable for you to be frustrated. Hold your lawyer and his/her firm accountable for their bad service. If they fail to return multiple calls/emails, you should consider taking your business elsewhere. I always recommend having a frank discussion with your lawyer about this before jumping ship.

Third, be worried about a lack of clear strategy, chronic disorganization, or financial irregularities. Let me be blunt; some clients are high maintenance. They need to talk to the lawyer or staff every other day, want to be reassured, and generally are just more nervous than others about their case (it’s okay to be one of these clients). If a client is high maintenance, with all due respect, they should be prepared to pay for their need to have constant contact with the lawyer or firm. That said, however, there are a few areas that I believe merit some intense scrutiny from clients. First, your lawyer hasn’t outlined a clear case strategy to you. In my practice, our team is expected to have a written case strategy for every single case that’s been reviewed by our team and then outlined for the client. We consider it part of our job to generally know the step-by-step process to resolve your case as quickly as possible and understand all the relevant issues and parties. Hopefully, your lawyer is doing the same. Second, if your lawyer appears to be chronically disorganized, I think you should run for the hills. Law practice is paper-intensive, deadline based, and requires organization and focus. I’ll be clear – I’ve seen very good lawyers with piles of paper on his/her desk, and they are still organized. But, if your lawyer has piles of paper, can’t keep the file organized or the calendar straight, can he/she really be as efficient as possible? I doubt it. Your lawyer should have a firm grasp on client files, deadlines, and strategy. If your lawyer can’t keep his shirt tucked in, has papers pouring from his briefcase, loses documents, or just regularly seems out of sorts, I wouldn’t give them the time of day. Last, and most important, your lawyer should have a rock solid grasp on case-related financial matters. Anything short of this is unacceptable. Specifically, this includes detailed records related to money you’ve paid for legal services, time spent on the matter (especially when billing hourly), and settlement funds, if any. Records should be specific and in writing. Any failure (at all) in the financial area should be met with scrutiny and serious concern.

Fourth, do you feel your lawyer really knows this area of practice? How ‘green’ is he? As a lawyer, when I am asked to render a second opinion on a case (or another lawyer’s performance), one of the first things I do is research the other lawyer to learn about them. In what fields of practice does the other lawyer work? Do they advertise as accepting cases in only one or two areas of practice or will they take any case that comes through the door? Where are they located (rural area or metro area)? How long has he or she been out of law school? While the vast majority of lawyers understand that they should only accept matters in which they are knowledgeable and proficient, bluntly, some don’t and will take cases they should not. Let me be clear – being a ‘jack of all trades’ lawyer is okay. There’s no general prohibition against a lawyer practicing in unrelated fields (for example taking a criminal defense case one day and taking a business litigation matter the next day). In fact, in many rural areas, it’s commonplace to find a lawyer who will do any number of different types of law. Even in larger cities, it’s usual to find small firms or sole practitioners who will handle two or three different types of law (i.e., fields of practice). For me, even as a Board Certified Estate Planning and Probate Lawyer, I handle related areas like business and real estate law. But, that said, if your lawyer doesn’t specialize and will take multiple different areas, you want to know that your lawyer is experienced in the field of law you need, and you’re case isn’t going to require the lawyer to learn a new skill set. Here’s the way I see it – it never hurts to ask your lawyer how much experience he/she has at your particular area of law. If they can satisfy you that they know their field, and you feel good about them, try them out. If you have doubts, thank them for their time and move on to the next lawyer. There are tens of thousands out there and, like hamburgers, you may think one is horrible, but the next one is incredible.

Fifth, the relationship matters. Last but not least, the relationship with your lawyer matters. In my professional career, I’ve represented thousands of people. Thankfully, I’ve gotten along and had positive relationships with the vast majority. Some of them, however, drove me crazy. It wasn’t until I was in my practice for several years that I discovered the blessing of firing clients. Yes, firing clients. Withdrawing from representing the client and asking them to move on to another lawyer. At times it was hard. Sometimes it required approval from a court. But, in every single case, I think it was good for both of us. Occasionally, even clients with legitimate cases have personalities that don’t mesh with their lawyer’s. If that’s the case, consider moving on. Do both of you a favor and just find someone else.
Though I would like to think these blog posts actually solve problems, it’s important to remember that these are just my observations and opinions. The is general information. If you are a client suffering through a bad relationship with a lawyer, consider these issues before terminating the relationship or assuming your lawyer isn’t a ‘good’ one. Consider asking another lawyer for a second opinion (or just seeking guidance on how you’re feeling). Most lawyer’s I know (whether specialized or general), are honest, professional, and very good at what they do. A much smaller number of lawyers are poorly trained, disorganized, or just not very good (again, my opinion). An even smaller number (very small number) are dishonest. My hope is that the advice in this blog will shed some light on your situation and guide you as to whether you feel you need to consider other help.

As a lawyer who is Board Certified in Estate Planning and Probate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, I help clients with matters in estate planning, probate law, guardianship, and business law resolve their important issues. If our firm can help you, please call us. Most consultations are completely free of charge. We can be reached at (469) 607-4503.

ATTORNEY CHRIS PARVIN is Board Certified in Estate Planning & Probate Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Mr. Parvin is the Managing Partner of the Dallas, Texas law firm of Parvin Law Group, P.C. and serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Texas A&M University School of Law. Mr. Parvin can be reached by email at chris@parvinlaw.com

Parvin Law Group, P.C. is a Concierge Law Firm in Dallas, Texas with attorneys practicing law in the fields of Estate Planning, Probate, Business Law and Family Law.