How to Avoid a Bad Lawyer
Cases are won and lost based on the quality of your legal team. Not all lawyers are equally skilled, competent or ethical. Knowing how to find a good lawyer, and how to avoid a bad one, is not always easy. Trust your instincts and watch for the red flags below. For more on locating and hiring a good lawyer, see How to Find a Lawyer and How to Choose a Lawyer.
An attorney’s work habits are one of the largest indicators of competence. The following red flags may indicate that it’s time to find new legal representation.
- Unreturned phone calls – A lawyer who fails to return phone calls promptly, 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.
- Unanswered e-mails – Like unanswered phone calls, unanswered emails can indicate that the lawyer is too busy, stressed or overwhelmed to handle your case or is not making your matter a priority.
- Missed deadlines – 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.
- Poor attitude – A lawyer who displays a condescending, uncommunicative, rude, impatient or otherwise poor attitude may be difficult to work with. A poor attorney-client relationship may create conflict, tension, and ill-will.
- Lack of proper calendaring system – A reliable, organized calendaring system is critical to meeting deadlines and prioritizing multiple obligations. A lack of a proper calendaring system can lead to missed deadlines and other disasters.
- A promise of a court victory or successful outcome – An attorney should never promise his client a specific outcome, no matter how likely that outcome may be. Be wary of promises of a sure-fire victory.
- Refusal to provide references – A refusal to provide references or let you talk with past clients indicates that the lawyer had problems with past clients that he does not want you to know about.
A lawyer’s work premises, from the building location and exterior to the reception room, conference room and offices, can speak volumes about a lawyer’s work practices and clientele. Below are a few signs that all is not well.
- Office space in a state of disrepair – Office space or property in poor disrepair can signal financial problems on the part of the lawyer.
- A large number of empty offices – A high number of empty offices can signal significant employee turnover, too-rapid growth or financial problems.
- Unkempt, disorderly office – A messy, cluttered office is a red flag for disorganization and inefficiency. Perhaps the lawyer thrives in chaos but do you want to risk losing important paperwork or missing a deadline?
- Stacks of unfiled papers or unopened mail – A backlog of filing or unopened mail may indicate that the lawyer lacks proper support staff or is disorganized, unmotivated or overwhelmed.
A look at the lawyer’s staff members and how he interacts with personnel can provide clues to his effectiveness, competence, reliability, and ethics.
- Unhappy staff members – Disgruntled employees or low workplace morale can signal poor lawyer-staff communication, strained relationships and a lack of caring. A lawyer who treats staff poorly - through bullying, verbal abuse, rudeness and other behavior - can fuel conflict, tension, and ill-will. If the lawyer fails to treat his employees well, will he treat clients well?
- High turnover rate – High employee attrition can signal dissatisfaction with the law firm in general or the lawyer specifically. Committed and satisfied employees are more likely to remain with a firm, regardless of pay or benefits.
- Lack of staff - A lawyer who lacks adequate support staff may be difficult to work with or may be experiencing financial difficulties.
- Overbilling or excessive billing – Overbilling is a sign that a lawyer or paralegal is inflating the time it took to perform a task (known as “padding time”).
- Vague billing – Your legal bill should explain in detail the tasks performed, who is performing them and when. For example, a phone call should include information as to who made the call, what party they were calling, the nature of the matter and the duration of the call.
- Surcharge on legal expenses – Some law firms add a surcharge to routine expenses such as copying or postage fees as a way to boost profit levels. In most cases, such charges are inappropriate and unethical.
- Hidden expenses – Watch for hidden expenses that were not disclosed at the outset or in the fee agreement or retention agreement.