1. What should I expect from my lawyer?
2. How can I avoid problems with my lawyer?
3. What if I have a personal dispute with someone who is a lawyer?
4. What should I do if I have a problem with my lawyer?
5. What should I do if I suspect that my “lawyer” isn’t really a licensed lawyer?
6. What should I do if I don’t agree with my lawyer’s advice?
7. What can I do if my lawyer’s bill seems high?
8. Can a lawyer refuse to arbitrate a disputed fee?
9. What happens at a fee arbitration hearing?
10. How do I request fee arbitration?
11. What can I do if I believe that my lawyer acted unethically?
12. What are some examples of lawyer behavior that may be unethical?
13. How do I file a complaint against an attorney?
14. What will happen to my complaint?
15. What happens when the State Bar files charges against an attorney?
16. What is my role in the discipline process?
17. If I lost money because of my lawyer, can I get it back?
Your lawyer should:
For tips on finding a lawyer, see the State Bar guide Finding the Right Lawyer.
To see this pamphlet online visit the State Bar’s website at www.calbar.ca.gov (click on Public, then Pamphlets).
Your lawyer is responsible for your case and you are entitled to his or her best efforts on your behalf. However, you can help avoid some problems and misunderstandings. As the client, you should:
You may believe that your landlord, who happens to be a lawyer, hasn’t given you enough warning of a rent increase. Maybe a lawyer who charged some tools at your hardware store has not paid his or her bill.
While lawyers are licensed by the State Bar, the bar does not generally become involved in such matters. To solve these problems, you need to exercise your rights as a tenant or as someone who is owed a debt.
Contact your lawyer at the first sign of a problem:
Express your concerns to the lawyer and listen to the lawyer’s explanation. If you are not satisfied, you may want to seek a second opinion from another lawyer. Then, if you are still dissatisfied, you might consider hiring a new lawyer. For some tips on finding and hiring a lawyer, see the State Bar pamphlet Finding the Right Lawyer. You do have the right to change lawyers at any time. However, if you wait until you are close to trial, you must consider whether this would be good for you and your case. You may not be able to find another lawyer at such a late stage. In addition, such a change might delay your case. If you fire your lawyer, he or she usually will be entitled to payment for any past work.
First, talk to your lawyer about it. You may find that the case was more complicated and took more time than you realized. Your lawyer may find that a billing mistake was made.
If talking to your lawyer fails to solve the problem, you can request fee arbitration (see page 9). This is an out-of-court hearing in which a sole arbitrator (or panel of lawyers and non-lawyers) not involved in the dispute will listen to what you and your lawyer have to say, examine the fee agreement, the attorney’s performance and supporting records and reach a decision regarding the fee dispute.
Arbitration is usually faster and less expensive than going to court, and you can do it without hiring another lawyer.
In most cases, the lawyer must agree to arbitration if you request it. (See page 8 for exceptions.) The arbitrator’s decision will be final if both you and the lawyer want it to be binding. Binding means that you will have limited ability to appeal (challenge) the decision. Non-binding means that you would still be able to take your case to civil court for a new trial if you do not agree with the arbitrator’s decision.
If either you or the lawyer want a new trial in civil court after a non-binding award, such a request must be filed with the court within 30 days. If no one requests a new trial, the arbitrator’s decision in a nonbinding case will become final and binding after the 30-day period.
If the arbitrator determines that you are entitled to a refund and the lawyer fails to pay it, you can go to court and obtain a judgment to collect the money. You can also contact the State Bar’s Office of Mandatory Fee Arbitration at 415-538-2020 for assistance in enforcing the award. On the other hand, if the arbitrator says that you must pay the lawyer fees, and you don’t pay them, the lawyer can obtain a court judgment to collect the fees.
If you choose to arbitrate, the lawyer must do so in most cases. This is true even if he or she has sued you for payment of the fee, and even if you and the lawyer agreed to the fee in writing. The exceptions include:
Arbitration hearings are informal. They may be conducted by a panel of lawyers and non-lawyers or by a sole lawyer arbitrator. Whether you are entitled to a single or three-person panel depends on the particular program’s rules and the amount in dispute.
You may be represented by a lawyer, but it is not necessary. You can arrange for an interpreter to attend the hearing with you.
You and the lawyer both will have a chance to make statements, ask each other questions and present evidence, such as letters, billing statements or the fee agreement. You may also present witnesses — someone who, for example, heard you and your lawyer agree to the fee. If you have problems obtaining papers needed for the hearing from the opposing lawyer, you may ask the arbitration panel to intervene.
If you think you will need moral support, ask the arbitrator if a family member or friend can accompany you to the hearing. Fee arbitration hearings may be closed to everyone else except the witnesses while they are testifying.
If you want a transcript (a written record) to be made of the hearing, you must hire a court reporter and pay for it.
Also, keep in mind that the aim of fee arbitration is to determine if the fee amount is appropriate for the lawyer’s work on your case. Arbitrators do consider the lawyer’s performance in your case to reach their decision. But they will not — and cannot — award any additional money for what may or may not be attorney malpractice or professional misconduct.
Local bar associations that operate fee arbitration programs generally set up the arbitration. Contact the local bar program in the county where most of the legal services were actually provided. To locate a local program in your area, you can:
The filing fee for fee arbitration varies from program to program. If you cannot afford to pay the fee, however, some programs will waive it. When you fill out the arbitration program forms, you will have to state the type of case (adoption or divorce, for example), the amount of your lawyer’s fee and the amount you believe it should be. In addition, you must specify whether you want the arbitration to be binding or non-binding.
If you are the one requesting arbitration, you can do so at any time. However, if you receive a notice of your right to arbitrate form from your attorney (in the event that he or she is planning to sue you and pursue some other action for the disputed fee), you must request arbitration within 30 days — or lose your right to such arbitration.
Keep in mind that requesting fee arbitration is not the same as filing a State Bar complaint alleging attorney misconduct. A disciplinary complaint is an independent process available to you to address an attorney’s performance and professional conduct (see next question).
For more information on the Mandatory Fee Arbitration program, see the State Bar pamphlet Having a Fee Dispute With Your Lawyer?
You can register a complaint with the State Bar. All lawyers who practice law in California must live up to ethical standards. The State Bar of California’s Office of the Chief Trial Counsel handles complaints against lawyers. If you believe that your lawyer acted unethically, you can download a complaint form from the State Bar’s website. You may also call the State Bar’s intake hotline at 800-843-9053 (in California) or 213-765-1200 (outside California) to discuss the complaint-filing process. The intake hotline staff:
If the lawyer continues to deny the misconduct, there will be a hearing in the independent State Bar Court:
Your role is similar to that of a witness in a court case. You may be asked for information at various times. By cooperating with the State Bar staff, you may be protecting others from falling victim to an unethical lawyer in the future. Keep in mind that the State Bar can only take action with regard to the licensing of lawyers.
State Bar attorneys cannot help you resolve the legal problem that led you to complain about your lawyer in the first place. If you still need legal help, you will need to consult a new attorney.
Maybe. If you lost money because a lawyer did something dishonest, you should first call the State Bar’s intake hotline at 800-843-9053 and file a complaint. At that point, request a Client Security Fund application form as well.
If an investigation shows that a lawyer took your money unlawfully, the Client Security Fund may reimburse all or part of your lost money, up to a set amount. All California lawyers contribute to the fund, which helps clients who lose money or property because of their lawyer’s dishonesty.
Read more in the State Bar pamphlet The Client Security Fund Can Help You. You can also find a form to request reimbursement on the State Bar website or send your request to: The State Bar of California, Client Security Fund, 845 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90017-2515.
You may also consider filing a criminal complaint or suing your lawyer for the lost funds. However, there are legal time limits for filing such lawsuits. If you’re considering a lawsuit, you should seek legal advice immediately.