How To Avoid Legal Scams
Too often, looking for a lawyer means you are experiencing a troubled period in your life — a divorce, a criminal case, an action against a doctor who committed malpractice. In such times, your attorney is your closest ally, someone to guide you through complicated legal procedures and fight for your best interests. How do you make sure you’re picking the right attorney who will return the best possible outcome for your case?
- Lawyers bound by strict ethics rules; outright malpractice and disbarment are rare.
- Do your homework to make sure you get the right lawyer for your case
- Philadelphia attorney sentenced to 5 years in prison for stealing from clients, friends and family.
Actual scams or theft by lawyers are extremely rare, but they are devastating when they do occur. In a worst case scenario in Philadelphia, attorney Jeffrey Abramowitz was sentenced to five years in prison this month for stealing more than a million dollars from his own firm, his clients, his friends and his family.
According to prosecutors, Abramowitz “spun a web of lies, hoaxes and bogus documents” in running his scams, which included stealing money from his sister-in-law that he was supposed to use to negotiate a big mortgage settlement. He also ran off with cash from his own sister after her house burned down. If that wasn’t enough, he took money from his personal injury clients, many of whom were immigrants who did not speak English well, and stole from his own law firm, filing false tax returns to hide the deception.
After Abramowitz initially pleaded guilty, he apparently hadn’t learned his lesson and wrote a bad check to a car dealer for $22,000.
“At some point, you crossed over from mere guilt or humiliation or embarrassment to one of the most outrageous fraud situations this court has seen,” the federal judge handling the case told him.
Strict Professional Responsibility
Abramowitz was disbarred last year, standard practice for a lawyer who commits fraud, misconduct or is convicted of a felony. However, take heart — disbarments and truly crooked lawyers are rare. Some 800 lawyers are disbarred per year nationally, out of over 1,180,000.
Attorneys follow a strict code of professional responsibility. Specific rules vary by state, but many are based on the Model Rules of Professional Conduct written by the American Bar Association. In general, lawyers are required to act with due diligence in their clients’ best interest and, importantly, tell the truth.
Ethics rules notwithstanding, when you need someone to represent you in court it’s still important to vet your attorney carefully so know you’re getting someone who will go to bat for you. “Lawyers are with you during such important things in a person’s life,” says Marsh Halberg, a criminal defense attorney in Minneapolis. “When we goof up, it can cause such damage.”
However, with some basic research it’s not hard to find a lawyer that will be right for your situation.
Check online lawyer ratings
“Usually I tell people, when you’re picking a lawyer, do it the same way you pick a doctor when you move to a new city,” Halberg says. “Do your due dilligance.”
The first place to start is on the Internet. Look at sites like Lawyers.com and Martindale.com to see how attorneys are rated by their peers and clients. Use Google to search your prospective lawyer’s name and firm and look for any red flags or past disciplinary actions.
Next, go check out the attorney in person. “Most attorneys will give you a free interview to meet them,” Halberg says. “Trust that gut feeling that you have. Some people interview more than one lawyer before they choose. Lawyers are used to that. We don’t take offense.”
“If you’re not really sure, overwhelmed because of emotion, or your personality type doesn’t want to be very thorough, bring someone else to that meeting with you if you don’t mind sharing those types of confidences,” the attorney advises. “Close friends or family members can be ears and eyes for what’s going on.”
Lay out your expectations in advance — inquire what will the costs be, what are the long-term goals, what kind of timeline can you expect and what are the realistic chances of success? “People should be persistent and expect questions to be answered,” says Halberg. “One of biggest complaints about lawyers nationwide is that they don’t return phone calls. Ask how long can you expect to wait to hear from them.”
The Abramowitz case raises several red flags at the outset. For one thing, practicing law for friends and family members can lead to awkward outcomes even when the lawyer involved is honest. “You don’t mix family with business,” says Halberg. “Look for outside counsel for what you need, legal and medical or something else.”
The other factor that stands out is that several of Abramowitz’s victims were immigrants who didn’t have a firm grasp of English and couldn’t be expected to have a nuanced understanding of the American legal system. For people in this situation, there are a number of resources out there like the Immigration Advocates Network that can help find the right kind of assistance and avoid opportunists looking to make a buck off others’ vulnerability.