Dealing with Problems in the Attorney-Client Relationship


Although many attorney-client relationships are highly effective, sometimes a problem or dispute will arise over the course of representation. It may be possible to resolve a concern through a discussion with your lawyer. More serious concerns may justify your changing to a different lawyer.

One common complaint from clients is that that their lawyers are not communicating with them. For example, their lawyer is not responding to phone calls or emails, isn't giving status updates about their case, and won't schedule a meeting to discuss the case. If you have left clear requests for a meeting, and have left clear messages stating why you need to speak to your lawyer, but have not received a response, consider going to your lawyer's office without an appointment and trying to either meet your lawyer or schedule an appointment in person. If that fails, it's time to consider seeking legal representation from another law firm.

Be Careful About Incurring Legal Fees

When you hire a lawyer on an hourly basis, your lawyer will track legal services by the agreed increment, often six minute increments, and will bill you for those services. Some lawyers are very diligent about recording any billable event with a client, any email, phone call, or text message, and billing the client for every contact. If you are involved in a contentious legal matter, such as a high conflict divorce, you should resist the temptation to contact your lawyer every time a problem or issue arises. Instead, keep notes of issues that you need to discuss with your lawyers so that you can consolidate what might otherwise be multiple contacts into a single contact or phone call.

Poor Communication

An enormous number of client complaints result from poor communication. The client attempts to contact the law firm about a legal matter or case, but does not get a response. When clients don't hear from their lawyers, they understandably become frustrated.

Ideally, when hiring your lawyer you will have discussed communication, and how quickly you will receive a response to a message you leave with the firm or a request for an in-person meeting. Even if you did not discuss communication, you should expect a response to your messages or inquiries within a reasonable time -- usually one to two business days. If your question is complex, or if your lawyer is occupied with another legal matter, your lawyer can nonetheless contact you to explain why it may take some additional time to fully respond to your inquiry.

Before you become too angry with your lawyer, consider how frequently you are contacting your lawyer and the type of questions and issues that you are raising. The more frequently you contact your lawyer, and the less important the subject of your contact, the more likely it is that your lawyer may stop responding to every inquiry, perhaps responding only to those that the lawyer deems important. However, if the lawyer is taking that approach, the lawyer should first explain to you why you may not get a response to messages or inquiries and help you better understand when you will receive a response. No matter what the reason for a prior lack of diligence, if your inquiry boils down to, "Why haven't I heard from you," your lawyer should promptly respond.

If you are unable to reach your lawyer, you may go through a series of steps to clarify your needs and expectations:

  • When you leave a message or send an email, expressly state when you expect to hear back from your lawyer, for example,"Please respond by the end of the day tomorrow".

  • Schedule an appointment to meet with the lawyer, and discuss communication during that meeting.

  • Show up at the lawyer's office in person, and try to meet with the lawyer at that time. If that is not possible, schedule an appointment.

If you attempt those steps, or similar steps that are more suited to your circumstances, but still cannot communicate effectively with your lawyer, you should consider changing law firms.

What to Do If You're Not Satisfied With Your Lawyer's Work

Your lawyer works for you, and you have the right to end your relationship with your lawyer. The decision to end the relationship or change firms does not relieve you of your obligation to pay your lawyer for work that the lawyer has already performed on your case. If the lawyer is representing you on a contingency fee, the lawyer will likely remain entitled to a portion of the proceeds of your case once it has settled or after a verdict is returned.

Sometimes a new lawyer will help you understand what is happening in your case, and may encourage you to keep working with your current lawyer. If you decide to change lawyers on a case for which you will pay a contingency fee, your new lawyer should negotiate and work out the details of the division of the fee with your former lawyer and, if unsuccessful, should represent you in court proceedings that relate to the division of the fee between law firms.

What to Do if You Have a Dispute With Your Lawyer

If you find yourself in a dispute with your lawyer, your best initial step is normally to discuss your concerns with your lawyer. If you are not satisfied with what you hear from your lawyer, possible responses include:

  • State Bar Dispute Resolution Programs - Many state bar associations offer dispute resolution programs to help resolve disputes between lawyers and their clients. Many of the programs focus on fee disputes.

  • Changing Lawyers - If you find that you don't trust your lawyer or can no longer work effectively with your lawyer, you may find that the best option is to end the relationship and work with a different law firm.

  • Filing a Grievance - If you believe that your lawyer's actions were unethical, you may file a grievance with the state bar association, describing what happened in your case and asking that your complaint be investigated for violations of the rules of professional conduct.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jul 27, 2016.