Behaviors Most Likely to Generate a Bar Complaint
After speaking with a client recently about a Georgia Bar complaint matter, I started thinking about my nearly 15 years of experience defending lawyers against Bar complaints. While the individual situations are unique, the recurring theme is communication, or more specifically lack thereof. Communicate to your staff, your clients, and, when necessary, to your insurance carrier as well as the GA Bar.
Based on my experience, here are the top behaviors that ultimately cause dissatisfied clients to file Bar complaints. If you are interested in learning more about each topic, I included a link to a blog post with more details.
- Don’t return files to clients on a timely basis. We have all been in the situation where a client asks for their file back. This could mean that the client is changing counsel, the client believes he has a claim against the lawyer, or the client is changing the decision to pursue the case. Georgia Bar Rule 1.16(d) and Formal advisory opinion (FAO) 87-5 confirm that you can’t hold files hostage for any reason, but before turning it over you may want to review the file, organize it, and remove personal notes. You may also want to make a copy of the file for your records. Click here to read my article about client file requests.
- Failure to communicate, or to respond within a reasonable timeframe to client requests. Bar Rule 1.4 confirms “early and often” is the best way to define effective client communication. Agree upon reasonable goals, and then maintain an open dialog, copying your client on all case-related communications to maintain full transparency. Don’t forget to use engagement as well as, non-engagement, or disengagement letters as circumstances dictate! Click here to read five tips for effective client communication.
- Allowing your non-lawyer staff to give legal advice. Your assistant may have been preparing your legal documents for many years, but that doesn’t give him/her the right to threaten legal action on behalf of a client or dispense legal advice to a client or potential client. Formal Advisory Opinion 00-2 defines the unauthorized practice of law. Don’t allow anyone to sign your name, and ensure that your rules on what staff can and can’t do are clearly outlined in your employee handbook or written policy documents. Click here to read some more tips for managing non-lawyer employees – your “weakest link.”
- Failing to observe conflicting interests. The most common example is talking to one party involved in a legal action, however innocently, prior to being engaged by the opposing party. Make sure that you conduct systematic firm wide conflict checks (don’t rely on memory) prior to discussing a new matter. If there is even a hint of conflict, investigate further, provide adequate written disclosures, and have all parties sign the required disclosures if applicable. Bar Rule 1.7 outlines the disclosures required of all parties prior to continuing representation. Click here to read more about avoiding conflicts of interest.
- Providing the perception of overcharging. Many fee disputes are caused by rate increases, unanticipated costs, or a particularly difficult component of a case – issues sometimes may be avoided through better communication. Be proactive. Communicate rate changes ahead of time. Keep your clients apprised of case status, including unexpected challenges. This will also keep you out of the GA State Bar fee arbitration process.
There are, of course, a number of other reasons that may ultimately cause a dissatisfied client or even another lawyer to file a Bar complaint, including medical or personal issues, substance abuse, and a variety of other unethical/illegal activities. Please let me know if you think another type of activity should make the list, and we can expand it.
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