When You're Not Happy With Your Bankruptcy Lawyer

You have options when you are not satisfied with your attorney's level of service. Getty Images

Bankruptcy and other financial difficulties breed strong emotional reactions in clients and sometimes lawyers and creditors, too. I have always believed that the only areas of the law that could produce emotions as strong as those surrounding money issues like bankruptcy are criminal cases and domestic relations cases.

Bankruptcy attorneys know this. We commiserate with consumer clients daily, listening to their fears, concerns, anger, feelings of defeat and failure.

We answer questions, sometimes repeatedly, because we know that a one hour initial consultation is inadequate to allow an emotionally charged client to absorb all she needs to know to make the important decisions involved in bringing a bankruptcy case to court.

We also know that clients want answers yesterday, and that waiting for an attorney or staff member to respond to a phone call or email can be interminable. Sometimes, the best remedy is to provide a shoulder to cry on, or some encouraging words. Most of all, we know that sometimes, our clients just need us to be there and be responsive while they traverse this difficult period in their lives.

Most consumer bankruptcy cases are straightforward and present few pitfalls that an experienced attorney would not be able to manage. Of course, even the simplest case from the attorney’s perspective is monumental to the client. All consumer bankruptcy attorneys should understand that.

The best ones do and act on it.

Unfortunately, sometimes the lawyer or her staff will become overwhelmed and fall behind, she will lose a case, she will have to pass along information that the client will not like, or will have to make clear to the client that the outcome of the case will not likely meet the client’s expectations.

Lawyers are human, too, and sometimes they just don’t want to pass along bad news. One is one reason they notoriously neglect communicating with their clients. In fact, that’s the number one complaint that consumers have against their lawyers

There are ethical standards that all lawyers have to keep. See our article Consumer Bankruptcy Client Bill of Rights. There are other standards specific to a consumer bankruptcy practice that I would call “best practices” that I think are common sense, even though few are required under lawyer disciplinary regulations. See Consumer Bankruptcy Best Practices.

So, what do you do when you have concerns about your lawyer’s treatment of your case? Here are some ideas to consider and where to look next.

1)    First and foremost, you have to at least attempt to talk with your attorney about your concerns. Quite honestly, sometimes the lawyer just doesn’t realize that her behavior or the behavior or her staff is causing concern.

2)    When you do get to talk with the attorney, be willing to listen. I’ve had clients who expected me to call them back within 5 minutes every time they called, which may be multiple times a day. It is unreasonable to expect that level of service from any office, including law firms.

That said, it is perfectly reasonable to expect a return call the same day, or early the next morning. Certainly, anything outside 24 hours is not acceptable unless the attorney is ill, in trial or otherwise not available. If that case, the best practice would entail an assistant communicating directly with the client. Experienced assistants can often answer questions, provide assurances, pass along information to the attorney and generally act as a go-between until the attorney is herself available.

3)    If you are continually being put off and can’t get to the attorney, make a note of your efforts to communicate: when you left messages, with whom, what you said, and any responses you received. You may need this to document a complaint.

4)    If you’re not facing a deadline, like a statute of limitations for filing a case in court or a demand from a trustee or creditor to turn over property, consider sending a letter to the attorney outlining your concerns.

Be as specific as possible, detailing particular issues and transgressions.

“I left four messages between 9/22/2014 and 9/26/2014, and no one from your firm contacted me.”

“You failed to file my modified plan by the due date and my case was dismissed.”

“You missed the court hearing on 7/15/2014. I lost pay for missing work that morning and had to lose pay for the rescheduled court hearing.”

Send the letter by certified mail, which requires an additional fee, but well worth it if you have to file a complaint with your state bar. Be sure to ask for a signature upon delivery. That way, the postman will have to put the letter into the hands of an actual person at the firm.

5)    If you are facing a deadline, it may make more sense to take your concerns to another attorney, either one in the same firm or, if necessary, one in a different firm. That attorney may have better luck getting to the nonresponsive attorney, and may be your best chance at getting your matter resolved or filed.

6)    If all else fails, contact the state bar. Every state bar association has a disciplinary committee that is charged with the responsibility for investigating complaints. The state bar’s website will have either a phone number for contacting the disciplinary staff or a complaint procedure outlined on the website itself. Be prepared to provide specific examples of your issues. State bars take these complaints very seriously, but it is next to impossible to investigate a complaint that has nothing more detailed than, “My attorney won’t return my calls,” or “My attorney missed a deadline and my case was dismissed.”

In extreme cases, it could well be that your attorney committed malpractice. The state bar will not litigate malpractice claims. That will be a civil suit that you will be required to file on your own or with the help of another attorney. There are indeed attorneys who specialize in pursuing malpractice claims against other lawyers.

By the time you’ve reached the complaint stage, you can probably assume that your relationship with the lawyer is irrevocably damaged. Hopefully, it will not be too late to salvage your case and bring you some satisfaction.  

Here are some articles that may be helpful:

What to do If Your Attorney s Running a Bankruptcy Mill

How to Find a Consumer Bankruptcy Attorney

Consumer Bankruptcy Client Bill of Rights