I’ve been a lawyer for close to 30 years, mostly in the field of personal injury. I was on the ethics committee in law school, I painstakingly try to play by the rules within my profession, and I’m one of the few lawyers that handle legal malpractice cases against other lawyers because I don’t like to see innocent people taken advantage of.
Yet, nonetheless, whether I’m picking a jury or having a casual conversation, I seem to be always defending personal injury lawyers as a whole and explaining that this is an honorable profession, with mostly good lawyers, with good ethics, who actually help people and change lives – which you can’t say that about too many jobs.
Unfortunately, there is a small group of individuals and firms that cheat, steal and violate the rules, by justifying that everyone else does it, and arguing that the rules are unclear.
The Rules That Govern Legal Ethics
In New York State, the Rules of Professional Conduct, which are crystal clear, govern a lawyer’s conduct and begin with “all attorneys are obligated to maintain the highest ethical standards”. These rules are to be enforced by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court and the local discipline and grievance committees. Attorneys who violate the law are subject to discipline, including admonishment, reprimand, censure, suspension, disbarment (which is the permanent revocation of an attorney’s state license, ending his legal career), and could separately face criminal action.
Rules That Are Absolute Violations
Now I want to list some examples of clear violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct – they all relate to personal injury or medical malpractice cases. These violations (below) all could effectively revoke a lawyer’s license to practice law or even put the lawyer in jail.
Now, ask yourself, if my lawyer is willing to engage in these violations, despite the consequences, how much remorse will he feel when he steals my money or finds another way to swindle me?
- Lawyers shouldn’t solicit business: There are the firms that send people to visit you at the hospital after your accident, or somehow track you down within days of your accident, and tell you to hire them because they will make you a fortune. How did they get past security or get your telephone number? You don’t want lawyers that begin your lawyer-client relationship illicitly.
- A lawyer must advise his client of EVERY settlement offer: A lawyer works for you. He can’t settle your case without your permission, and he has an obligation to call you with every offer he gets on your case, even if there are 30 offers and they are all only between 50 cents and $20.
- Once a lawsuit is filed, the only way a lawyer can exit a case is by making a motion to withdraw as counsel: Clients call me all the time asking if I can take over their case, now that their lawyer told him he doesn’t want it. Once the suit is started, a lawyer is obligated to represent you and if he decides he wants out, he has to get Court permission by drafting a motion, for which you are able to appear and fight.
- No lawyer can loan a client money: This is an absolute no-no. A lawyer can get you a loan, using your case as collateral, but he can absolutely not give you money out of his own pocket. Some lawyers give clients $1000 during sign-up to entice you to sign with them. Not only is the lawyer violating the rules, but if you get caught, your case is in jeopardy.
- A lawyer must keep his client informed: This is another big complaint I hear about with respect to other lawyers. Once again, the lawyer works for you. If you want an in-person meeting, you should get one. If you want to look at your file, then it’s YOUR file to look at. The big reasoning behind this rule is that when a case is settled, you are supposed to be paid within an appropriate time. Some clients are never told, or they don’t get the paperwork that documents how much their case settled for, which could mean the lawyer kept some of YOUR money. In other instances, the lawyer blows the statute on your case and doesn’t tell you, because he’s afraid you’ll sue him for malpractice.
What Recourse Do You Have?
So, what do you do if you realize your attorney is sleazy or you suspect he stole from you or negatively affected your case in some way? It’s an important question, and the good news is that there is recourse.
- If your case is ongoing, and you are uncomfortable with your current lawyer, you can hire a new lawyer at any time.
- If you believe your lawyer cheated you in some way or blew the statute on your case, you can:
- Report him to your local disciplinary committee:
- Manhattan/Bronx Counties: Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Department; 61 Broadway, 2nd Floor; New York, NY 10006; (212) 401-0800
- Kings/Queens/Richmond Counties: Grievance Committee for the Second, Eleventh and Thirteenth Judicial Districts; Renaissance Plaza; 335 Adams Street, Suite 2400; Brooklyn, NY 11201-3745; (718) 923-6300
- Hire a lawyer to sue your former lawyer for legal malpractice.
- Report him to your local disciplinary committee:
- If your lawyer stole your money, it is a crime and you can report him to the District Attorney’s Office.
- Finally, there are a couple of outlets to explore to seek financial retribution:
- Lawyers’ Fund for Client Protection is an organization created by the State Legislature to reimburse losses caused by dishonest attorneys in the course of their practice. Their info. is 1-800-442-FUND or nylawfund.org
- In the event of a fee dispute between an attorney and a client, the client may be entitled to request arbitration or mediation through the Attorney-Client Fee Dispute Resolution Program. 877-FEES-137 (877-333-7137) or nycourts.gov/admin/feedispute/index.shtml.
Anyway, I hope this helps. I suggest you interview at least 3 lawyers before hiring one. My partners and I are on a panel called Super Lawyers, and all of the lawyers on this panel have been vetted and are top tier – that’s a good place to start. Trust me (how can you trust me if I’m a lawyer? – good catch!) when I tell you that when you meet a good lawyer. After meeting a couple of bad lawyers, you’ll immediately know the difference.