Today's question is one I get asked more than I like, but it's a legitimate question and as a profession we need to address when to look for a different lawyer.
Question: Does it look bad that I want to change my attorney? A suit has already been filed in my personal injury case. I'm the victim. I'm looking for another attorney as I'm not at all happy with the present one. I've been told it looks bad to other attorneys. I've received a date for the deposition. Should I go to that BEFORE I find a new attorney? Thank you.
Answer: I can't say it looks bad because the reasons for wanting to change are not apparent from what you've said. If you have a legitimate reason it doesn't look bad, but make sure your perception is reality. What looks bad is a client who will never be happy no matter who her attorney may be. Make sure you're being realistic about why your attorney does what he does and that what you expect is realistic. As a preliminary matter sit down with your lawyer and tell them you're not happy and are wondering if you should find a new lawyer to handle your case. See if you can talk it out and resolve the issues.
This first step is always the hardest. So sit down with your present attorney and get an explanation of what you think is wrong, and then talk with other attorneys and determine if you're correct. Then if the problems or questions still exist, you can hire a new one subject to firing your current attorney and go from there. But as you suspect this is a somewhat drastic measure similar to changing canoes in the middle of a stream. It’s not something anyone would suggest except in exceptional circumstances. And what might those exceptional circumstances be?
Well, there are some very legitimate reasons, so let me list a few.
- The attorney has a substance abuse problem.
- The attorney is failing to show up for court hearings.
- The attorney misses appointments repeatedly.
- The attorney’s office is a complete mess, with files all over the place and no organization or support.
- The attorney appears to not know what he or she is doing.
- The lawyer is failing to explain the status of the case to you and doesn’t seem know the status.
- The lawyer is failing to engage in discovery of your case.
- The lawyer failed or is failing to prepare you for depositions.
- A year has gone by and nothing is happening with your lawsuit and no one seems to be able to explain why.
- The case has been dismissed pursuant to I.R.Civ.Pro. 1.944, for lack of prosecution.
- The lawyer has multiple malpractice suits against him/her.
- The lawyer advises you to find a new attorney.
- The lawyer’s office never seems to be open.
- The lawyer is never in the office.
- The lawyer has left town.
- The lawyer has died.
- The lawyer has lost his/her license.
- The lawyer is hospitalized and within a reasonable period of time no one has contacted you about how your case will be handled.
- The lawyer has money missing from the trust account and seems unable to explain the loss with a reasonable and believable explanation.
- The lawyer asks you for personal favors that are inappropriate.
- The lawyer has serious ethical charges involving incompetency or dishonesty are pending before the bar association.
- The lawyer has serious ethical charges have been ruled on against the lawyer concerning dishonesty or incompetency.
- The lawyer has serious criminal charges pending.
- The lawyer has serious criminal charges that have been unfavorably resolved against the lawyer.
- The lawyer's partners have kicked him out of the firm and when you ask them why they respond with, "No comment."
Incompetence is also a reason. I would not fire the one attorney until you've found another one. You can most always postpone the deposition for a month while you look for a new lawyer who will agree to take on your case.
If you have any question about your attorney’s competency you need to visit with other lawyers. I regularly get asked about attorneys and I’m very honest about telling people they are with a good attorney that understands the law and is competent. Many times I will ask the potential client for permission to call the other lawyer with the goal of reopening the channels of communication between client and lawyer. Most of the time, it can be ironed out by the lawyer having a clearer understanding of the communication problem that exists. As a profession we must be honest about each other even when we practice as capitalists in a very competitive business.
I probably need to write about how to select a lawyer, because before engaging a lawyer you need to understand how to hire the right lawyer. Experience and getting a referral are key components of hiring one confidently.
So to finish answering your question, you can change lawyers but do it with caution and based in fact, not just a feeling of disenchantment.
- The Iowa State Bar Association
- Iowa State Bar Association - FIND-A-LAWYER Search Page
- Iowa State Bar Association – Attorney Discipline Page
- Ethics Opinions