In today’s day and age, attorneys, rightly and wrongly, get bad reputations from the public. Often these negative reputations are undeserved, but, as a profession, we lawyers need to do a better job of protecting that status as a profession by acting “professional.” So, what is it that small business people, real estate clients, and the simple estate planning clients need, and what is it that causes such clients to complain to the ethics board?
Ethics in the hometown practice of law can be complex and potentially dangerous for the local attorney who has practiced for years, given of themselves to the community and knows many in the community. What can your personal lawyer do, and what should you expect? When should you make a complaint to the local grievance committee?
Traps for the Unwary
Ethics grievances are most commonly filed against solo practitioners and lawyers at small law firms, because these are the lawyers on the “front line,” for many clients who have never dealt with the legal system, are often at wits end, or stressed by a major financial hardship (divorce) or transaction (purchase of real estate). With increased stress and unfamiliarity with the process, friction often arises between the attorney and the client. When the dispute arises, clients often dispute the fees, and are generally surprised by the amount of time and care it takes to resolve even the most mundane problems.
Obviously, many ethics cases arise from fee disputes, matrimonial law, and real estate transactions because people are emotionally attached to the proceedings or transactions. In residential real estate transactions the real estate closing is the first and only time people deal with attorneys, who often know the issues inside and out, but fail to explain such transactions which are often the biggest and most important investment for these clients, making the relationship even more difficult.
The same stress, sense of loss, and tension is created when attorneys draft wills and then handle the probate process, which can be cumbersome and painfully slower than expected.
Needless to say, there are often common themes to attorney grievances which can be resolved by confident clients and communicative attorneys. For example, many ethics complaints emanate from the turbulence, delays and erratic nature of certain legal matters, especially real estate, probate, and litigation. When the client doesn’t know what to expect in terms of money, time, or process, the attorney is the one who can expect a disgruntled client, who might file an ethics complaint.
The failure of communication is cause of the breakdown of the attorney client relationship. When the client and the attorney understand the process, communicate the pitfalls, and understand the potential problems, then both the attorney and the client win.
As professionals attorneys have to understand that the small town practice of law is a service business where results matter, but if a client understands the process and the pitfalls through communication, both parties exit the relationship with the attorney’s reputation in tact. The first step to such communication is taking the client’s call or returning it promptly.
What to Expect from your Attorney!
1. Expect to be educated about the process.
2. Expect to understand the attorney’s role in resolving the matter. We don’t make business or personal decisions for you, we explain the ramifications of each course of conduct.
3. Don’t expect to win everything there are limitations to what an attorney can do.
4. Expect realistic even conservative estimates as to what result can be accomplished, and in what time frame.
5. Expect to speak to your attorney personally and expect a return telephone call or email.
6. Call or contact and expect updates.
7. Consider and get honest appraisals or estimates of the positive and negative results and occurrences in your matter.
8. Don’t expect the sugar coating on the situation.
Credibility, cooperation and communication are hallmarks of a good relationship. I strongly believe that attorneys’ “bad reputations” are fostered by the utter inability to communicate with their clients and the public at large. If we are going to improve the relationships it is going to come through communication and education.
For all of you real estate, matrimonial, probate, and litigation clients out there, remember, you deserve full communication, dignity, and respect. If you are not getting it, you can move to another attorney, or demand it from your attorney.
That respect, however, is mutual. When your attorney tells you that a certain course of conduct MAY result in a negative outcome, you have to respect the fact that you chose that course of conduct. Stated differently, it’s not your attorney’s fault you just lost your real estate down payment because you failed to apply for a mortgage in accordance with the contract.