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Avoiding Unethical Attorneys

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As the economy continues its path of decline, two things are increasing -- law suits and crooked schemes. What happens when both of these collide and attorneys are the culprit? Here's a few tips to protect you and your business from this type of headache.

As with any profession, there are good guys and bad guys. Not all attorneys are bad people, just as all mechanics are not out to rip you off. As any legitimate legal professional will tell you, a few bad apples tend to taint their entire profession. However, through recent personal experience I was surprised to learn that -- just as with our police force and our teachers -- the governing bodies for lawyers and the justice system at large usually under-funded and back-logged. This leaves the door wide open for a few to abuse their power, since a swift prosecution or a timely sanction are now even less likely.

There are a few common complaints that are often the result of misunderstandings and miscommunication. Higher bills than one was expecting, an undesired outcome of a court case or a case being handed off to a law student instead of a senior partner are all things that might be prevented with a careful conversation at the beginning of the relationship. However, attorneys are human (insert lawyer jokes to the contrary here) and some of them are just plain bad news.

I've interviewed others in the legal profession about this issue. Here is some of the advice that they provided:

1. Research your attorney and/or their law firm through your State Bar organization.
How long has the attorney been practicing? Have they ever been professionally sanctioned? Is their specialty relevant to your case? These are the types of questions that a State Bar can usually answer and many of them keep their records online. A quick review of this information may shed light on a potential problem down the road.

2. Do a criminal and background search of the specific attorneys you will be working with.
Here's a fact that I found shocking in my situation -- did you know that most State Bar organizations do not provide criminal information about an attorney such as arrests and convictions? Because of the wealth of other information my State Bar provides, I made the (regretful) mistake of assuming otherwise. Check the county court records (often found online) for that attorney and see if they have been the party of any law suits or if they have appeared for criminal charges. You can also type in the full name of the attorney and the words "arrest" or "mug shot" in a search engine and sometimes find some enlightening information as well.

3. Google the law firm.
Though there are a number of great organizations that try and track unprofessional behavior, nothing beats the power of social media and the blogosphere. Type in the name of the prospective law firm and its key attorneys to see if other issues pop up. However, depending on the complaints that you locate, you may want to provide them with an opportunity to explain the circumstances that occurred, as not everything on the Internet is true.

4. Ask for client referrals.
Just as with any other business, the law firm should be able to provide some contact information for satisfied customers. However, they will not be able to provide specifics for a given case without permission. Ask to speak with some of their former clients and be sure to ask the clients how long they worked with the attorney and how they came to know them. (There are many businesses that are using friends and family members to beef up their portfolios these days!)

5. Get billing terms in writing.
In my case, I was quoted an hourly rate that sounded reasonable and a retainer was paid. Months later I received a bill for literally $1,250 per hour (!!) with no explanation or written notice that regarding why I asked to pay over eight times the quoted amount. Without a written contract it is difficult to dispute a bill once it is received, unless it is something that is obviously beyond the pale.

6. Supervise and sign off on everything.
With any legal matter, it is tempting to ask a law firm to "just handle it", but keep in mind that your organization or your household will ultimately face the consequences of any legal decision made. Make sure that your relationship with your attorney is a collaborative one and that you will be made to feel comfortable with any action before it is taken.

7. Remember that you are not powerless.
It's easy to become intimidated by the credentials and the letterhead, but a lawyer is just a person that chose a different career path than you did. They do not have more, or less, legal rights than you do. In fact, in many states they hold a higher standard of conduct than your average bear. If the worst case scenario does happen, know what your rights are and where you can turn. A few places to start are local law enforcement (to document the matter), the State Bar (to file a complaint) and, if necessary, legal action.

8. All attorneys are not equal.
It bears repeating for the sake of the many amazing, talented and ethical friends that I have in the legal profession -- not all attorneys are created equal. Shop around, ask the tough questions and pay attention to your intuition before making any type of commitment.

Shawna Vercher is a talk show host, an advocate, and a mom. She has no credentials in the legal professional aside from her fantastic ability to attract that infamous bad apple. Do you have any additional tips about finding a good attorney or your own story that you would like to share? Feel free to reach out to her by either leaving a comment or reaching out via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ShawnaVercher.