Lawyers have received something of a bum rap, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. However, when you need one, your lawyer can be your best friend, the sole force standing between you and disaster. The bad news is that not all are up to the job, if only because they’re human, and humans are prone to error. If your attorney fails you, it’s natural that you’d want to complain to someone – and you can under some circumstances.
The Nature of Your Complaint
If your complaint with your lawyer involves a personality conflict, you may not get very far registering an official complaint about him. Even if you’re dissatisfied with the way he handled your case because you ultimately lost, complaining probably won’t do you any good unless he did something ethically or legally wrong. Most states have Rules of Professional Conduct or Rules of Professional Responsibility by which attorneys must abide, so if you’re unsure, access the ones for your jurisdiction to find out whether your lawyer’s mistake actually qualifies as misconduct.
What to Say in Your Complaint
Assuming your problem with your attorney rises to the level of misconduct, your state may or may not have a form available for you to fill out. If one isn’t available, you can write a letter, which you might elect to do anyway so you have more space to clearly explain your allegations. List the facts of her transgression, attaching proof if you have any. Cite the Rule of Professional Conduct that you believe your lawyer broke. If you have witnesses, name them and give contact information for them. You’ll have to sign the letter and include contact information for yourself as well, since most states will not allow you to make complaints anonymously.
Where to Make a Complaint
Exactly to whom you should submit your complaint varies by jurisdiction, but you can check your state’s website or call the state bar association to find out. New York has grievance committees assigned to each court district, but in California, you would go to the state bar. In New Jersey, the Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Ethics handles complaints through district ethics committees situated around the state.
Attorney Fee Disputes
If your complaint concerns your attorney’s bill for services, you may have another option. Some states have fee dispute resolution programs. In New York, if your complaint is of this nature, the grievance committee will most likely send your matter to the program to resolve the dispute rather than investigate. You can also file a complaint with the program directly. New Jersey has fee arbitration committees. You and your attorney can appear before the committee and work out a resolution.
What Happens Next
If your state’s grievance committee or ethics committee agrees that you have a legitimate complaint and finds that the lawyer committed some wrongdoing, he may receive a written warning or, in extremely serious cases, be suspended or disbarred, which means he'd be prohibited from practicing law in the state, either for a set period of time or forever. In all likelihood, none of this will happen based on your letter alone, however. Most states will conduct an investigation into your charges after receiving your letter. If you don’t have a reasonable complaint, you’ll probably receive a letter or notice stating that the committee is not going to investigate your charge.
To write a complaint letter about an attorney, you can simply write the attorney a letter; however, if you want to take action and prepare an official complaint letter, you'll file a grievance with the state's attorney regulatory agency where your attorney is admitted to practice. You can set forth, in writing, everything he did that you think violated the law or the Rules of Professional Responsibility.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.