When you realize your attorney is working against you, it’s difficult to know what to do.
That is why it is now time for a collection of practical recommendations for defending oneself against the small fraction of bad lawyers whose behavior tarnishes the entire industry.
1. Trust your instincts and fire them
Telling someone to stay with an abuser is awful counsel, and it is especially harmful in the context of a lawyer/client relationship.
That is why, whatever your problems are, I propose that you do not sit about waiting for things to suddenly resolve themselves. Allow your attorney one chance to explain their egregious behavior, but fire them if you don’t like or trust their explanation.
I understand how difficult this is, especially if you don’t have the funds to hire a new counsel. But undoing the damage caused by a dishonest attorney is significantly more difficult — and far more expensive.
Consider the dozens of victims of now-disbarred Oregon lawyer Megan Perry, many of whom stayed with her for far longer than their instincts suggested because they had invested money in her “legal work.” Five years later, few have recovered from the financial and emotional destruction her representation wrought.
2 Contact the police, not the state bar.
Theft, fraud, evidence tampering, or any other illegal behavior perpetrated by an attorney is not a distinct type of crime that the bar investigates. Nope! It’s simply normal old criminality that the cops have to deal with.
Don’t allow anyone — and I mean anyone — to persuade you otherwise, especially the cops.
If you suspect you have been the victim of a crime committed by an attorney, go to the police station and file a formal report. Do not dither, hem, or gently peddle it. Get the officer’s contact information and keep in touch with them until you receive a definitive answer. Be persistent, but not obnoxious. Keep a copy of the police report as soon as the ink has dried.
3. Obtain your customer file as soon as possible.
Your attorney’s file for your case is not only their property; it is also yours. Even if you owe them money, they must give you a copy so that your new lawyer can defend your immediate legal interests.¹
You want that file as soon as possible before it can be tampered with, doctored, thinned out, sanitized, or otherwise faked. Give the attorney a firm timeline to meet.
Importantly, your file should contain any communications between your attorney and your opponent. If such emails aren’t in your file, you can be sure it’s not for legitimate or happy reasons.
And keep in mind that, as much as the legal community would prefer to deny it, attorney collaboration is extremely real.
4 . Request a copy of the court records
Even if your attorney provided you with a copy of “everything” that was entered in your case, there are bound to be surprises in the court’s files.
Don’t go out and get a certified or exemplified copy just yet: Get a standard paper copy or have it emailed to you (typically for less than the per-page fee).
Examine each page as soon as you obtain the records. I bet you’ll find a motion or order that your attorney never told you about, or that documents you thought were submitted aren’t.
If you come upon anything genuinely amazing, make a certified copy of it right away before it magically vanishes.
5. Reduce the harm
Crooked lawyers like tainting legal procedures. Consider your case prejudiced if there have been unusual outcomes in the case, such as a judge screaming at you for something that did not actually happen while your attorney just shrugged.
Knowledge is power in this situation: Attempt to obtain the emails exchanged by court personnel and counsel in your case. I discovered some real gems that explained a lot of otherwise incomprehensible judicial behavior. If feasible, use the emails to find a new, neutral judge.
Also, keep an eye out for moves to withdraw that are harmful to your interests, and advise the attorney that their notice of departure should be boilerplate.
Avoid disclosing the identity of your new attorney. The elderly attorney will begin attempting to poison them as soon as it becomes public. There is no good method to inform a new lawyer about their predecessor’s behavior, except in small doses and only when necessary.
6 . Submit a bar complaint
Bad attorneys should be reported to the bar, in whichever state they practice, only after your time-sensitive concerns have been resolved. Consider it a public duty that you must perform for your neighbors.
Complaints can be difficult to write and might bring back a lot of painful emotions about someone you once trusted.
Complaints, in my opinion, should be as brief as possible while yet detailing the misbehavior that occurred. If you filed a police report, include it, and if your attorney did not return your file, begin with that.
You never know what the bar’s investigators will focus on, but they can always request additional information. Simply do your best and don’t let the process consume you. Keep in mind that the truth is on your side.