National Ethics Awareness Month
March is National Ethics Awareness Month. In the spirit of awareness, I thought I’d talk a little bit about ethics and the law. Odds are at some point in your life you’ve heard a joke about lawyers. The profession has the reputation of being filled with sharks, snakes, and other predators. However, in truth, attorneys have strict rules about what is and is not appropriate conduct. In fact, in order to become an attorney you have to pass an ethics test, have a detailed background check, and take continuing education classes on this very topic.
When you have to engage the services of an attorney it can be frightening and intimidating. The world of legal matters can be so complex that oftentimes it takes somebody with extensive education and experience to even be able to understand and apply the simplest of rules. However, just because you don’t understand the law doesn’t mean that you should forego common sense when choosing and working with an attorney. In fact, if you suspect that your attorney is doing something illegal or unethical, seek out the opinion of another attorney. Think of it as like getting a second opinion from a doctor when your first doctor tells you something you don’t like. Sometimes the first person was absolutely correct in what they said or did. Sometimes they are not. Here are a few things that should definitely raise a red flag.
Your attorney is representing more than one person involved in the case. This is a no-no. Attorneys are supposed to represent their client to the best of their ability. Even if you have similar goals as the other person, that might not always be the case and your attorney might end up in the position of having to favor one of you over another. This is why multiple defendants for the same crime can have separate attorneys. That way if guy A wants to turn witness against his buddy guy B in exchange for a lighter sentence, then his attorney can help him do that without disadvantaging another client. Each attorney works for their own client.
Your attorney doesn’t tell you all your options. This is also a huge problem. Your attorney should provide you with all the facts and all the choices so that you can make an informed decision. The last thing you want to do is lose a court case only to find out the other side had offered to settle beforehand and your attorney turned down the offer without telling you.
Your attorney doesn’t keep in contact with you. As with many things in life there is no hard and fast rule about this one, but rather an idea that something must be reasonable. A delay in communication from your attorney must be such that another member of his profession could have easily done the same thing. If you call your attorney give him a couple of days to call you back. He might be in court and unavailable, or his schedule could be packed solid, or there could be a more personal reason such as illness. However, if your attorney repeatedly fails to return your phone calls you could have a serious problem on your hands. Attorneys are obligated to keep open lines of communication with their clients and to keep them notified of what is going on in their case.
Your attorney can’t explain where your money has gone. Attorneys need to keep detailed accounts of money that you have given them whether it’s in payment for services already rendered or payment against future services. If they can’t give you a clear accounting, or there seems something strange about what they are doing, consider consulting another attorney.
Your attorney mishandles your case. Just like with doctors, lawyers have to be concerned with malpractice. Also as with doctors, you have to be able to prove that what your attorney did goes against what a normal attorney would have done. Oftentimes the result is obvious. Attorneys are expected to be competent. Given the many areas of law, most choose to specialize and practice in one or two areas where they can make sure they are up to date on the law and familiar with standard practices. Straying outside of that puts them at risk for making costly mistakes. For example, if your friend’s cousin handles business law but represents you at a murder trial, the odds are he is not competent in that area. Of course, even if you had an attorney with 30-years experience representing people accused of murder, your attorney might completely drop the ball in your case. Again, seek out a second opinion if you think your attorney mishandled your case.
While this is not an all-inclusive list, it should give you an idea of the kinds of things to watch out for. You hire an attorney to help you navigate a legal issue but that doesn’t mean you can blindly assume everything is okay. You are still the person ultimately responsible. If someone has to pay a huge fine or go to jail, it’s going to be you and not your attorney. Be a little proactive. If you don’t understand something, ask for an explanation. If your attorney has violated the rules of ethics, report him to his bar association. Remember, your attorney works for you, you don’t work for your attorney!
- Find out how to report an attorney for ethics violations.
- Get the facts about replacing an attorney.
- Know what to do if your attorney’s behavior is negligent.
- Get help selecting a lawyer.
- Know what you need to do before meeting your lawyer.