Beware the red flags from inattentive, unskilled lawyer – Press-Enterprise


Many years ago, my dog was diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis was not good. Weekly I drove him to a veterinarian oncologist clinic for treatment. The oncologist was cold, uncaring and uncommunicative. Worse, she never offered any hope, leaving me wondering why my dog and I were there.

Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I complained to the doctor who owned the clinic. “That’s why we have several doctors here,” she said. “Not every doctor is a good fit for every person or pet.”

And just like that, I had a new veterinarian oncologist assigned to us. She was warm, caring and eternally optimistic.

I’ve always remembered both the importance of maintaining hope and the lesson that not every professional is a good fit for every person. The same is true for lawyers. How do you know if a lawyer is the right one for you?

Do your research

The State Bar of California opened nearly 17,500 cases of attorney misconduct in 2020 and filed notices of disciplinary charges against 180 attorneys in State Bar Court. In 2020, 79 California attorneys were disbarred, and another 114 were suspended. (I suspect the number of unhappy clients is much higher than these statistics would represent.)

Always check the California State Bar website to see if the attorney you’re considering has had any disciplinary actions filed against them. Also, make sure the attorney is licensed to practice law.

A client once brought me their trust to review to see if it needed updating. The trust was so poorly written I looked up the “attorney” who drafted it, only to find he’d been disbarred 10 years before drafting the client’s trust. The attorney still maintained a website that mentioned “legal services” and prominently displayed “JD” behind his name.

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JD simply means the person graduated from law school. It doesn’t mean they’ve passed the bar or are admitted to practice in the state of California, which requires much more than a law school degree.

Getting a recommendation for an attorney is a good place to start but be sure to ask the person making the recommendation whether they liked the attorney, had a good experience and felt they were treated well. You don’t want just a name.

Do they have experience?

How long has the attorney you’re considering been practicing? How long have they been practicing in the field where you need services? Do they specialize in that field?

Gone are the days when the neighborhood attorney could handle your speeding ticket, your divorce, your estate planning and your property line dispute with your neighbor. Most attorneys now, out of necessity, practice in only a few related areas of law. It’s hard enough to keep up with two or three areas of law, given the complexities of each in modern times. An attorney offering services in multiple unrelated areas of law is likely barely scratching the surface in each.

Similarly, someone who immediately opens a law practice upon graduation from law school is likely not a good choice. A law school graduate has no idea how to practice law — they may know the law and be well versed in theory, but experience is always the best teacher. A new attorney may be enthusiastic and charge less, and that can be great for you as long as they’re supervised by a more seasoned attorney who knows where things go wrong, can offer practical solutions and understands best practices in a particular field.

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Communication is key

Lack of reasonable communication is one of the most common complaints filed with the State Bar of California against attorneys.

Once you hire an attorney, it’s reasonable to expect your questions will be answered and you’ll be kept up to date on matters.

If your lawyer can’t explain things to you in a way you can understand, or worse, won’t bother explaining matters, that lawyer isn’t a good fit for you. Likewise, if the lawyer isn’t returning calls or emails within a reasonable time, doesn’t keep you updated on your matters, or is annoyed by your questions or concerns, that might not be the right lawyer for you.

You have a choice

Just like I could choose a different oncologist for my dog, you can choose a different lawyer. You can fire your lawyer. You can interview multiple lawyers before hiring one. I am amazed how few clients do interview lawyers before hiring one, though many attorneys do free initial consultations (particularly in my field of estate planning).

There are more than 190,000 active lawyers in good standing with the State Bar of California. Make sure you choose one who is well-equipped to handle your matter and that you’re comfortable with. It’s an important and often long-lasting relationship.

By the way, my dog lived another nine years. There was hope after all.

Teresa J. Rhyne is an attorney practicing in estate planning and trust administration in Riverside and Paso Robles, CA. She is also the #1 New York Times bestselling author of “The Dog Lived (and So Will I)” and “Poppy in The Wild.”  You can reach her at Teresa@trlawgroup.net

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