Unfortunately, no matter how good a divorce attorney is, or was for someone else, you could find yourself in a situation where your attorney just isn’t doing what you think they should be doing.
Classic problems might include taking too long to get back to you, flagrant inaction on your case, not doing what they say they will do, not keeping you apprised of developments in a timely way and missing court deadlines.
My cousin’s attorney (in the state of Georgia) almost got in a cat fight with the opposing attorney. Her personal issues were getting in the way of my cousin’s case! Who could anticipate such a thing?
This is how the American Bar Association answers the question, “Where can I file a complaint against my lawyer?”
“If you believe you have a valid complaint about how your lawyer has handled your case, inform the organization that grants or withholds licenses to practice law in your state. Usually this is the disciplinary board of the state supreme court. You may find the board's contact information under the government listings for your state in the phone book or online. You can also obtain its location from the local bar association. The ABA's Center for Professional Responsibility also has a listing of lawyer disciplinary agencies.
If your complaint is against a military legal assistance attorney, you can file a complaint with the attorney's military supervisor or with the Judge Advocate General (the senior military attorney) for the appropriate branch of service.
Making a complaint of this sort may result in a disciplinary action against the lawyer (military or civil) for misconduct, but it will probably not help you recover any money.”
To know if you have a valid complaint, you can look up the rules of professional conduct for attorneys in your state. One rule of thumb to remember is that lawyers are, in essence, business people. If they are not providing a tangible service for the fee you are paying, then something is wrong. Just keep in mind that "winning" isn't the service they are supposed to provide.
They are supposed to inform you of the laws, give advice, respond to your communications in a timely way, meet court deadlines and competently represent you as your legal agent. By the way, serving as your agent means they have a duty to represent your interests.
If are frustrated with your divorce attorney and feel you need to pursue a dispute, here are some examples of what to do when seeking resolution. Even though I base this on what to do in my state, I suspect that, barring a few exceptions, many states offer similar pathways to resolution:
- Get a copy of your file: Make sure to ask for your file from the first attorney. You have a right to read it at any time in your attorney's office as well as to ask for a complete copy of all documents and communications regarding your case.
- Hire a replacement attorney: Depending upon the seriousness of your complaint with your attorney, you may need to go ahead and hire another attorney to pursue your family law case so that you do not drop the ball on getting things like child support and custody squared away. If you want to end a relationship with a prior attorney as you pursue a dispute, you need to formally end the attorney-client relationship before hiring another attorney for the same purpose. Do this in writing. Often, in any initial letter or contract with your attorney, your attorney will give instructions for how to end the relationship and under what circumstances.
- Try the Attorney-Client Assistance Program: If your state bar offers it, this is an alternative to filing a complaint when, due to the nature of your complaint, you feel a formal process is too harsh. The program in my state is described as a more informal process in which a public liaison will serve as an intermediary between you and your attorney. Sometimes, a phone call is all it takes!
- File a formal lawsuit against your attorney: To determine whether or not you have a legal case in North Carolina, North Carolina’s State Bar provides the state’s rules of professional conduct here. But I looked at several other states and they seemed to have similar recommendations. You just need to go online and check it out. Just remember that the rules of conduct for lawyers, while mostly similar, could vary a little bit state by state.
- File a general grievance with the state bar: A serious complaint that is filed with the state bar is separate from any law suit you might be considering. My state’s bar association has a grievance form that looks like this. Again, each state’s association may vary a little bit in how it deals with complaints.
- Fee Dispute Resolution: If you feel your attorney has charged you unfairly, then there is possible recourse through your state bar. Another scenario is that your attorney is seeking to collect fees from you. In North Carolina, the Fee Dispute Resolution Process is described as a program with no fee and there is a petition to fill out and a number to call. Not all cases would be suitable for this process, but a quick phone call might clear this up.
While going to this extra effort may seem like the straw to break the camel’s back and you just feel like giving up, do stand up for yourself if you feel like something just isn’t right with how your case is being handled. If a full blown law suit or grievance is too intimidating, start by calling the Attorney-Client Assistance Program.