In an ideal world, you could pick an attorney right out of the book that lists them all in alphabetical order—the phone book—and get a reliable personal injury lawyer in South Bend. The reality is that not every lawyer listed in the Indiana attorney directories (including the Yellow Pages) are specialized enough to handle a personal injury case. There is also the question of the attorney’s competence inside and out of the courtroom.
Fortunately, no sixth sense is needed to discern a good attorney from one who could derail your case. All you need is the ability to observe and ask questions.
How To Spot A Bad Lawyer
The courts have a remedy for clients burned by a bad attorney. It’s called legal malpractice. Attorneys can be sued for legal malpractice upon exhibiting negligence, breaching their contract, or what the law calls the attorney’s “fiduciary duty” to the client. Fiduciary duty is the attorney’s responsibility to put the client’s best interests first, and to not exploit his client for his own good, or that of anyone else involved in the case.
While a client who has been wronged by their attorney does have legal recourse, it’s best to avoid ever hiring a bad lawyer in the first case. Here are a few warning signs to look for:
1. Lack of Communication
Communication between an attorney and their client is the most important facet of a case. To ensure that things move forward smoothly, the attorney must keep the client updated on how the case is progressing, and the client must allow the attorney a chance to work the case without too much interruption (persistent phone calls and emails, frequent unannounced visits, etc.). However, when your attorney refuses to return any calls, or you receive notices about the case from the courts and not your attorney, you have a problem.
2. Frequently Disciplined
You would probably use the internet to check out a new handyman before you hired him, or check with the Better Business bureau before hiring a tax service. Why not do some checking on a lawyer BEFORE you sign the retainer agreement. Contact the Indiana State Bar Association to find any official disciplinary actions taken against the attorney you are about to hire.
3. Too Many Negative References
Ask around. If you find that there are more negative comments made about the attorney’s business practices than there are positive remarks, it’s probably best to keep looking.An attorney who has a history of bad client relationships isn’t likely to change on your behalf.
4. Missing Retainer Agreement
Do you even know what a retainer agreement is? Answering yes to this question after hiring an attorney is a bad sign. It means that you have no attorney-client relationship, or in the state of Indiana, a very shaky one. The retainer agreement sets forth the responsibilities of both the attorney and the client, from legal fees to the person responsible for paying for postage, to whether or not the attorney has a South Bend office that is open on Saturdays. (FYI: most attorneys in the will do so by appointment only.)
A retainer agreement binds the attorney to keep your secrets, and lets you know what to expect from him or her. If you do not have a retainer agreement, find another attorney immediately.
5. Representing Others Involved with the Case
It is not uncommon for a lawyer to represent people you know. In fact, you may have found the attorney through a referral from a friend. (In fact, this is a great way to find a good lawyer.) However, problems arise when the attorney or the firm represents you (the plaintiff) and the defendant, or the interests of the company you are suing. This is not only grounds for finding a new attorney, it is also illegal, and justifies a legal malpractice suit.
A good attorney will tell you up front if he represents the defendant, but don’t be afraid to ask before pouring your side of the story out to your brand new lawyer.
Hiring an attorney to represent you in what is probably a difficult time in your life is not easy. However, doing your research before hiring the attorney can prevent further devastation from a mishandled lawsuit and subsequent legal malpractice lawsuit.