Attorneys aren’t often known for their people skills. Add a little bit of ego and a laser focus on winning a case to the mix, and it can be surprisingly easy for an attorney to inadvertently insult colleagues, staff or even the client footing the bill.
Brushing up on etiquette skills now can save attorneys from costly disagreements down the road, experts say. Whether in a meeting with a customer or burning the midnight oil with staff, attorneys need to mind their p’s and q’s in every interaction in order to keep in their colleagues’ good graces.
Unreturned Phone Calls
A lawyer who fails to return phone calls in a timely manner, or at all, does not place a premium on client service. He may be too busy with other cases, uncertain with how to proceed with your case or ignoring your matter altogether.
Missing deadlines, especially court filing deadlines, can seriously damage your case. If a lawyer consistently misses deadlines, it is best to terminate the relationship and move on.
Overbilling is a sign that a lawyer or paralegal is inflating the time it took to perform a task (known as “padding time”).
Unhappy Staff Members
Disgruntled employees or low workplace morale can signal poor lawyer- staff communication, strained relationships and a lack of caring. An attorney who treats staff poorly – through bullying, verbal abuse, rudeness and other behavior – can fuel conflict, tension, and ill-will. If the attorney fails to treat his workers well, will he handle clients well?
Filing a Complaint
If a problem comes up, you have to file a complaint with the disciplinary counsel in the state where the lawyer is licensed. Generally, you have to:
- Fill out a form provided by the state bar association; or
- Write a detailed letter. It should include the attorney’s name, address, phone number, why you hired the lawyer, a description of the problem and any other information the bar association may request; or
- In some states, you can file a charge by calling a hotline.
In most cases, a board of lawyers and non-attorneys reviews the complaint. If there might be an ethical violation, the attorney is usually given a copy of the charge and some time to respond to it.
In some states, you’re given a chance to comment on the lawyer’s response and to request an investigation. The case will either be dismissed if there’s no evidence of a violation, or it will remain open. In the event the infraction is minor, a phone call or letter to the attorney usually ends the issue. A hearing is set up for serious violations.
Most information about the case is kept confidential until it’s released to the lawyer in question. Some states don’t allow anonymous cases because documentation is important. Your signature has to be on the complaint or letter in case you’re needed to testify in court.
Some states allow anonymous complaints if the problems impact the general public. Also, they may be allowed in cases where counsel doesn’t need more info from the customers. When allowed, you normally have to request anonymity when you file the complaint form or letter or during your call to the hotline.
Avoid a Bad Attorney
Anytime you need an attorney, you want to hire the right person for the job. You have likely heard plenty of horror stories about bad lawyers, and the last thing you want to do is hire one of them, particularly in a country where you have done a little business in the past. There are wonderful attorneys out there.
Prevent General Lawyers for Specific Needs
There are a lot of general practice lawyers out there and they may be very great at a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean they will be good at what you need to be done. If you need something business-related, hire a business attorney. If you have a divorce, hire a family law attorney. If you have an international contract, hire a lawyer with experience in drafting and reviewing such contracts. Find someone who specializes in your area of need. You might have to pay more, but the positive outcome will be well worth the cost.
Do Your Research
Do not simply go online or consult the telephone book and hire the first lawyer you find. Even if you have a job that needs to get done in a hurry, it is worth a little extra time to find a lawyer that will meet your specific needs. Ask various attorneys within the community and get references. The more searching and research you do up front, the better your odds of getting a great, competent attorney for your specific needs.
Sign Only When Comfortable
Once you meet with an attorney, you will be presented with a contract that will contain fee arrangements and other details. You should never sign this contract until you are completely comfortable with its terms. You must also understand all of the terms before you sign. In case the lawyer is not willing to explain things to you, or tells you the contract is standard, be leery of what might lie in the fine print.