What to do about an unresponsive attorney
July 23, 2014 12:18 AM   Subscribe

Several of my family members and I are working together to help select, coordinate and pay for legal representation for a family member (I'll call him Bill). The attorney we have hired will not take our calls nor respond to phone messages or emails sent to him, and Bill has an important hearing coming up.

We've already paid, in full and up-front, for representation in the current matter. We are not made of money, and the bulk of the attorney fees have been paid by my mother out of her retirement savings.

The attorney has promised on multiple occasions to visit Bill (or send someone from his office to visit him) in jail, to prepare him for his hearings, then neglects to do so. He's told us to have Bill call his office any time, but his office has so far refused to accept any of those calls. He's told us to call and/or email him at any time, something we've been careful to try to keep to a minimum, in order to not become too bothersome, but the attorney's almost complete refusal to acknowledge all attempts to contact him over the past few weeks (with the exception of two short emails promising to call us at specific times, then failing to do so), with an important hearing pending, has us on the ropes.

What sort of recourse, if any, do we have in this situation? We've already paid the entire fixed fee that the attorney quoted to us for representation in this matter, but none of us are satisfied with the current situation. Bill is pressing hard to replace the attorney with someone else, whom we're not sure how we'd be able to pay.

Background: We originally found this attorney through http://www.avvo.com/ . We paid him to represent Bill in a previous matter and were very happy with his responsiveness and dedication then. We've no clue what's happened in the interim.
posted by Strumpf Marionette to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Make a complaint to the licensing body in your province/state.
posted by HoteDoge at 12:34 AM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you let us know the jurisdiction the attorney and Bill are in? The licensing body will have grievance and other dispute resolution mechanisms. This is absolutely something you should report and that they may be able to help you with resolving, but if you can tell us the jurisdiction we may be able to give more detail about the process.
posted by katemonster at 12:46 AM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The jurisdiction is Harris County, Texas.

Related: Is there anything like a 'statute of limitations' for reporting this kind of thing to the licensing body? This is not the first attorney we've had trouble with.
posted by Strumpf Marionette at 12:58 AM on July 23, 2014

Ah, Texas! I know about that. This is merely informational, not legal advice, and I am not your (or Bill's) lawyer. Okay, disclaimers over. The Bar's page on how to file a grievance is kind of a mess and difficult to find, so here it is. And here's a decent brochure they've put out to explain the process to members of the public. There is a four year statute of limitations on most grievances

Important points: the conduct you describe does seem to meet their criteria for things that may violate disciplinary rules. You have already undertaken their suggested first step -- trying to contact the attorney. You can proceed straight to filing a grievance, or you can contact the Client-Attorney Assistance Program (CAAP). I would call them first and talk about what your possible courses of action are. They may assist with a mediation between Bill and the attorney, or help you decide whether to file a grievance. One of the benefits of CAAP is that it may be faster than going through the grievance process.

The Houston Bar has a Fee Dispute Committee that may be able to help you if the CAAP/grievance process doesn't shake the attorney loose.

Leave a negative (but scrupulously honest) review on Avvo. If he values his Avvo rating, he may be more motivated by getting you to amend your review than he would be by anything else.

Is there a reason Bill isn't eligible for a public defender? They've got a bad rap but they're frequently underrated -- and they're certainly better than a lawyer who won't show up or return phone calls. If he can qualify I'd definitely pursue that route.

I assume your goals are, in approximate order: to make sure Bill is adequately represented at the upcoming hearing, to get your money's worth or your money back from the attorney (and not be on the hook for another set of fees on top of what you've already paid), and having the attorney disciplined. If that's accurate, I would suggest calling CAAP and talk over the situation with them. Get them to nudge the attorney and see if that, perhaps combined with the review on Avvo, gets him to resume diligent representation of his client. If that doesn't work, or simultaneously (depending on how soon the hearing is coming up) pursue other attorneys -- preferably a public defender/court appointed attorney, but barring that someone who will work with you to cover the fees in a reasonable manner. If the original attorney is still ignoring Bill, then file a grievance. If attorney ends up not representing Bill for whatever reason and fails to return the money, grieve him on that, file with the fee dispute committee, or file suit. If it's under $10,000 you can file in small claims, and it should be a fairly easy case in which to prevail.

Even if the attorney does eventually come around and resume diligent representation of his client, you can still file a grievance against him for the conduct he's currently engaged in. However, if that's the case I would suggest waiting until representation is over to file, as you don't want that poisoning the well while Bill's still relying on him.

Let me know if you've got any other questions. I've been doing a lot of research on the grievance process myself lately for my own reasons, so this is a subject near and dear to my heart. Again, I think your best option is to call CAAP as soon as possible and lay this all out for them. They deal with this sort of thing all the time and are probably the best people to help you get a resolution without having to go through the grievance process. FYI, grievance and CAAP can't get your money back, but hopefully that'll work out either by attorney doing the work or voluntarily refunding the money. But there are other ways to get the money back, and in the mean time there are potentially other attorneys who can help and whom you wouldn't have to pay in full up front.
posted by katemonster at 1:36 AM on July 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

Some thoughts:

1. If you pay for Bill's lawyer, the lawyer still owes his allegiance to Bill, not to you. He may be uncertain how freely he may talk with you.

2. A client is free to fire his lawyer at any time. The fee that has been earned (by actual work) will not be refunded, but the remainder must be refunded.

3. "Actual work" means work that is evidenced by documentation, and that documentation must be turned over to the next attorney, who should be able to use some/most of it without having to retrace the same steps.

4. Getting these points enforced often takes some effort.
posted by yclipse at 3:48 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you speak to someone else in that office? Is there a secretary or admin with whom you can speak? Is there a managing partner in the practice that you can escalate to?

I'd actually park myself in the waiting room in the officer and insist on speaking with this guy.

Clearly phone and email don't work, so going down in person may be the only way you can connect.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:20 AM on July 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Having worked in the business as a legal admin (disclaimer: It was not in Criminal): If the attorney is in trial, and does not have an admin or paralegal who knows that it may be okay to talk to you, this may be the result. Ditto if he's having personal problems. Myself, before going down to the offices myself, I would send a registered letter to the attorney, saying that you intend to file a grievance with if you do not hear from him by x date (and If it's too close to the date of Bill's hearing, yes, go down to the office and demand to speak to either him, the paralegal working on his case, or his admin. if ~that~ doesn't get you what you need, demand to speak to the managing Senior Partner of his department. If none of these work, send the grievance. If they follow through and represent Bill, well and good. Then when the case is finished, send the grievance, as was said above.

Obviously, TINLA, as I am not, nor have ever been, an attorney.

posted by Meep! Eek! at 7:50 AM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see attorneys do this all the time, especially about returning phone calls-- there are only so many hours in the business day, you can't have your phone on during court, and you are rarely in a location where you can actually have a private phone conversation as often required under the circumstances.

Just to echo yclipse's point, any attorney owes a duty of competence, diligence, and confidentiality to the client (the person whose legal interests he is representing), not to the person who is paying the bills. The lawyer is not under any obligation to reveal details of the case to you; it's up to the client to divulge and the attorney may have (rightly) told Bill to keep mum in order to protect his interests. He may also be keeping his contact time with you all down because that would cost you money. If you've already paid a fee up front, he may have allocated only enough minutes to the case to make sure Bill gets what he needs-- although he seems to have given the impression that he would be generally available to you all as well.

He also likely has other clients with other hearings, and if this is a matter of representation in court, he may not be free to make a promised phone call, and he might not have large chunks of free time during the day to chat; have you scheduled a meeting at his office where you can discuss specific concerns?

Depending on the kind of hearing, there might not be a lot of preparation needed, at least from the client's end. How far out is it?

On the other hand, if Bill wants to put on a real case and not just "plea out" (or whatever equivalent is appropriate given your circumstances), it may take a concerted effort on your part to get the attorney's attention and have him work with Bill to build a case.

It is a bit worrying that he hasn't come to visit Bill, but I'd need more information about the phone calls. Is it a matter of not paying for a collect call from the jail (which would likely be coming out of the fee you've paid), or are the calls free of charge but the attorney is in court at hearings all the time and not in the office?

Your support of and loyalty to Bill are admirable; the level of participation in his case you seem to be seeking makes me wonder if there is something going on with Bill that leads you to think he won't be able to advocate for himself? Would a guardianship be appropriate and best under the circumstances?

This sounds really frustrating, and I frankly hope to become the kind of lawyer that can be effective and efficient without losing my basic customer service training. Even if speaking with you all is not actually necessary under the circumstances, you'd think the attorney would take at least a minute at the initial meeting to help you understand that, instead of promising to always be available by phone or email (unrealistic for many attorneys, even well-meaning ones).

Best wishes.
posted by Schielisque at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding "contact the Texas bar." I am not a lawyer, but have a high level of knowledge about the profession. The Texas bar will act.
posted by tacodave at 2:36 PM on July 23, 2014

As a retired lawyer, let me suggest that the lawyer you hired might be too busy for you. It is possible that he is in court all day. Try reaching him after 5pm.
posted by prk60091 at 4:36 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

IAAL. The important lesson is that you NEVER pay everything in advance. Paying a retainer is OK, but you must have some leverage if the lawyer loses interest or gets drowned in work.

It may also be because the case is hopeless. However, every defendant deserves a defense and someone to negotiate a plea if necessary.

So ... first get everything down in writing - what the defendant is accused of, the record of his arrest and what information the District Attorney has supplied. Then go to another criminal defense attorney for a one-time consult and let him/her read the summary. DO NOT justify the defendant - just give the facts.

Find the second attorney by calling the bar association for a reference to an experienced criminal defense attorney. A large firm will have a pro bono program. You could also go to the Legal Aid Society and ask for a reference to one of their experienced attorneys, who will know the lay of the land and also what to ask you about.

Then answer the attorney's questions, some of which may seem irrelevant. Believe me, what you think is relevant may be legally meaningless, and what the attorney asks about my seem trivial but may be the key to winning the case or at least mitigating the punishment.
posted by KRS at 6:42 PM on July 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


First, I'd like to thank everyone for the excellent advice you've offered. Fortunately, the situation has changed for the better, but we now know how we'd need to proceed if we did think it was necessary.

My sibling had a solid meeting with the attorney yesterday and cleared a number of things up. We've been working with this attorney for a couple of years now, and had been extremely pleased with his responsiveness, intelligence, compassion and dedication up until the past month or so.

Through a confluence of events, the attorney hadn't been aware of the number of times we'd try to contact him recently. He hadn't received our texts or notifications of our calls to his mobile phone, which meant he'd only seen our (increasingly frustrated) emails as well as messages left with his secretaries. Calls from Bill to his mobile phone hadn't gone through, and his secretaries were apparently not handling calls from jail properly.

He was, true to character, extremely professional, apologized profusely for the mixups, and said he would understand completely if Bill might want to replace him with other counsel. He said if we chose to go that route, that he'd take care of the paperwork to transfer the case, and that he'd refund the part of the fee we've paid that he hasn't yet earned. He promised to take care of the communication issues (apparently, he's been experiencing ongoing problems with his mobile phone account - we've heard a 'this subscriber is not accepting calls' message when we've called recently). He also promised to send someone to the jail to talk with Bill by Tuesday of next week.

It's a tough call, but our impression of the attorney has been so positive with the exception of the past few weeks that I think we're going to give him another chance.

Again, thanks very much for the good advice. We at least know where to turn and how to proceed in the event we do feel it's necessary. I wish we'd known this some years ago, when Bill paid a significant sum of money to a supposedly ace attorney who then totally dropped off the face of the earth, letting him sit in jail, basically unrepresented, for more than six months, missing almost all pre-trial hearings and ignoring all attempts at communication. Sounds like we could have filed a grievance in that case and attempted to negotiate a return of some of that fee.

Water under the bridge, but we now know how to react if anything like that were to happen again in the future.
posted by Strumpf Marionette at 3:53 AM on July 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

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