No one is above the law... not even lawyers and judges
When you hire a lawyer after a car accident or other personal injury, the most important thing to consider is whether you trust that person. Yes, there are other things to look for, too — such as experience and skill. But knowing that your lawyer is ethical, truthful, and honest will be crucial as you enter an attorney/client relationship.
Each attorney is required to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct set forth by the American Bar Association. Each state has its own rules, too. Some rules are based on how attorneys advertise or represent themselves, but others have to do with how they handle clients' money or your case file.
Examples of attorney misconduct
Just because you may not agree with your attorney or do not get along with them doesn't mean that they are necessarily behaving unprofessionally or unethically.
Here are a few examples of what an attorney might do that violates the ABA Rules:
- Serious neglect of your legal matter. No, we're not talking about making you wait a week (or longer) for a returned phone call, or taking a while to conduct discovery. Serious neglect would be missing important court deadlines that jeopardize the outcome of your claim, for example. It could also be failing to present you with information crucial to the case, like if the opposition made a settlement offer that you need to accept or decline.
- Mishandling of finances. Your lawyer is required to be able to account for any of your money or property that they're holding for any reason. They are not permitted to commingle your money with their own.
- Over billing. You are entitled to know what your lawyer is being paid to do. Some line items might be vague (like "research"), but if you're being billed hourly it should not be an excessive amount of time. In most personal injury cases, lawyers are paid on a contingency basis (not hourly). That means you pay them an agreed upon percentage of the damages you recover from your claim. However, there can be (and likely are) additional expenses if the lawyer must hire experts, travel, or incurs other fees.
- Refusal to hand over your case file. Once your case has concluded, you're entitled to recover your case file. If they don't do so at your request, this is a violation of professional conduct.
- Conflict of interest. There are a lot of examples of conflicts of interest that would prohibit an attorney from representing you in a legal action. A conflict of interest is when their personal or business interests would compromise the lawyer's judgment, decisions or actions with respect to your case. For example, if you are pursuing a slip-and-fall claim against a store that's owned by your lawyer's brother, that would be a clear conflict of interest. Your lawyer can't represent your best interests if they also feel loyalty to the family member who is the defendant. As soon as it becomes known that there is a potential conflict, the lawyer has a professional responsibility to recuse themself from the case. Even if the defendant isn't their family member, but is a neighbor, old high school friend, or any other person with whom they had even a minor relationship, it would be a conflict of interest to be involved in a legal proceeding where they are involved.
- Dishonesty. This is very broad, and it could be dishonesty to you, to the court, or to anyone else involved in the case. Yes, lawyers need to occasionally withhold information in order to have effective legal strategy, but there are ways to accomplish that within the confines of professional ethics rules.
- Criminal conduct. This is wide-ranging and could be related to the attorney's legal practice or not.
Sanctions (disciplinary measures) against attorneys
As in any other professional capacity, there is a scale of disciplinary action that can be taken against a lawyer that depends on the nature of the violation.
The state or local bar association will either issue a reprimand or put the lawyer on probation, suspension, or disbarment (which is the loss of their license to practice law). Each state's bar association will determine how to handle these disciplinary measures.
Where to file a complaint against a lawyer in your state
There are also reporting agencies related to patent and military attorneys:
- General Counsel, U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
- U.S. Air Force, The Judge Advocate General (AF/JA) Headquarters
- U.S. Army, Office of the Judge Advocate General
- U.S. Coast Guard, Judge Advocate General and Chief Counsel Commandant CG-094
- U.S. Marines, Staff Judge Advocate, Commandant of the Marine Corps Headquarters
- U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate General's Corps Office of the Judge Advocate General (OJAG)
If you believe that your lawyer's conduct violates the Rules of Ethics, you should probably begin by contacting your own state bar association for more information. The staff can tell you whether your claim rises to the level of filing a complaint.