What do you do when your attorney disappears?
March 9, 2012 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Bankruptcy Attorney appears to have fallen off the grid. What are my options?

(Apologies for the length, wanted to give as much detail as possible)
In mid-2011 my wife and I signed a retainer agreement with an attorney in my city to handle a personal bankruptcy filing. I never actually met the attorney, this was all handled through a law clerk at the firm.

The retainer fee was $1500, with $300 due up front and the remainder to be paid in progress payments of $300 each until the retainer was paid in full. There was also a filing fee (that we haven't paid yet) that goes to the court for actually filing the bankruptcy once we are ready to "push the button".

This past weekend I sent an email to my contact at the law firm (the law clerk) letting her know we were ready to set up an appointment to turn in our paperwork, pay our filing fee and meet with the attorney.

I received a response back on Monday stating that our attorney of record had left the office and taken our file with her (our attorney of record was copied on this email via a yahoo email account). I sent our attorney an additional email confirming that I wanted to meet for the aforementioned reasons. I also tried calling both her cell #and office # and received on both a "This mailbox is full and cannot receive messages".

After numerous attempts to reach this attorney via every possible source (emails to two different addresses, text message to her cell, one phone message when we were actually able to get through) I called the office where we originally set up our agreement to get a better idea of what was going on. I spoke to the original law clerk who we had dealt with, who informed me that at the end of January this attorney (who owned the firm) had fired all of the staff, taken all of her files and decided to work solo (the only reason the office was still running was because some of the attorneys who had worked for her decided to stay in business on their own).

On Tuesday evening I finally received a response via text message from our attorney stating that if I was comfortable mailing my information to her I could sent it to (address) or we could set up an appointment to meet in person. No more than 5 minutes later I responded back letting her know that I would be in the area of her new office the following day and could meet if she was available or, if not, we could set up an additional time (no response back). (I didn't want to just send in the mail because she the lack or responsiveness had already made me nervous and was afraid I might never see this very sensitive information again if I had just sent through the mail)

Throughout the rest of the week, I made numerous additional attempts to reach our attorney via phone (most of the time getting "this mailbox is full, etc" messages, but leaving at least 3 additional voicemails - so she is around to at least occasionally clear out her messages), numerous text messages and emails to no response whatsoever.

Today I stopped by the address she gave me as her "office" and noted another attorney's name was on the door. The secretary told me this technically wasn't my attorney's office, but she occasionally used it to meet with clients. After this, I sent the attorney a terse text message (her voicemail was back in "this mailbox is full" mode) stating that her unresponsiveness was getting to be a grave concern due to the urgency of our legal needs and amount of money I have paid for her services and to respond to me by end of day. As you can probably guess, she didn't.

What are my options here? Obviously at this point I would like my $1500 retainer returned (having not received our paperwork yet, she has not done any work on our behalf) so we can proceed with a lawyer who has adequate time to handle our case. How do you go after a lawyer who appears to be off the map? How difficult is it to get your money back from an attorney for this sort of non-performance (our contract states that our retainer free is non-refundable, but is this enforceable if we can prove that literally zero work has been performed on our behalf, especially considering the contract also states that the attorney will "...keep client informed of progress and to respond to client's inquiries" (wouldn't leaving your firm without telling us despite having an open case and being non-responsive to attempts to contact her be a breach?) How do you get your money back from someone who appears to be off the map? Better Business Bureau? State Bar? Small claims? We feel extremely helpless and, frankly, being in the position to file BK, we aren't exactly in the best financial situation to fight this or let this drag on.

For the record, I'm in California. Throwaway email bkattorneyissues@yahoo.com
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

I would contact the state bar.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:41 PM on March 9, 2012

If you're in LA, one of our best friends is a BK lawyer who would never treat you like this. Feel free to mail me if you need his info. Sorry I can't help w your current lawyer.
posted by GaelFC at 9:54 PM on March 9, 2012

The grievance process is slow. Contacting the bar will initiate an investigation that could drag on for months. It will not, in the short term, get you what you want.

I would, as a last ditch effort, leave a voicemail and send an email stating something like, "I am very concerned about the status of my case. I will be filing a grievance against you with the State Bar if you have not contacted me by [date], if you do not move my case forward, and if you do not begin accepting my calls. I understand that you may be going through a personal or professional transition and I do not want to make your situation worse, but your unresponsiveness leaves me with no choice. If you will just get my case on track there will be no hard feelings."

This is an attorney in a crisis situation who may have already resigned himself/herself to suspension or disbarment. But letting them know that you will only file a complaint if they continue to ignore you, is the only possible leverage you have to get the case moving.
posted by jayder at 10:19 PM on March 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

you didn't pay by credit card did you? you could call the credit card and tell them services were never received and the provider changed contact info without informing you.

would work best if some of your payments were more recent, like in the last month or two but worth a shot regardless.
posted by saraindc at 2:52 AM on March 10, 2012

You might be able to get your money back eventually via the California State Bar Client Security Fund.
posted by exogenous at 5:19 AM on March 10, 2012

I agree with the idea of contacting the state bar, but also, you may have signed the retainer agreement with the attorney and the attorney's firm. Even if the lawyer is unreliable, it's worth considering that you may be able to get the former firm to handle this for you.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:24 AM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your lawyer is contacting you a little. It also sounds like all this happened this week, and no more time than that has passed. To have this all start last weekend and then 'finally' getting a response Tuesday, which is only a few days later, is not all that dramatic.

The simplest explanation is that she left to work on her own and she's backlogged and swamped. Not that it is your problem, but it doesn't sound like the panic is necessary yet. On Monday send her another round of communications stating that you are concerned enough to call the State Bar in the next two days, and odds are she will be in contact with you.

Yes, it's not fabulous that she is not responding right away, but this is too much drama. It just sounds like you got caught, timeline-wise, right when she was in the middle of a business move. (which takes months and months to get back to normal).

If you don't get a response this coming week, then it is time to think about taking a next step.
posted by Vaike at 11:19 AM on March 10, 2012

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