When you hire a personal injury lawyer, you are placing your legal, financial, and perhaps even medical future in their hands. Unfortunately, attorneys are only human and are capable of making mistakes just like anyone else. While in some cases these mistakes are innocent and easily fixable - like not filing enough copies of a document with the court - other times, the mistakes are willfully ignorant.
When an attorney blatantly disregards legal ethics they are liable for facing serious disciplinary action, including losing the right to practice law. If you suspect your attorney of wrongdoing, continue reading to learn the top 10 most common personal injury lawyer ethics violations you should look out for - and what to do about it.
What Is an Ethics Violation?
To protect the integrity of the legal system, each state has its own code of ethics that attorneys must follow. The American Bar Association (ABA) has established model rules of professional conduct expected of attorneys, and most U.S. states, including Florida, have incorporated them as part of their state laws. In the state of Florida, rules of discipline, ethics, and other policies fall under the Rules Regulating The Florida Bar (RRTFB). Drafted by the Supreme Court of Florida, these guidelines classify lawyer ethics violations into two separate concepts:
- Attorney Misconduct: Attorney misconduct is defined as unethical or illegal conduct by an attorney, such as over-billing a client or hiding evidence.
- Legal Malpractice: Legal malpractice occurs when a lawyer fails to competently, professionally, adequately, or zealously represent a client.
10 Most Common Personal Injury Lawyer Ethics Violations
While attorney misconduct and legal malpractice are two separate wrongdoings, oftentimes, the most common ethics violations fall under the same umbrella. The 10 most common personal injury lawyer ethics violations include:
- Undisclosed conflict of interest
- Refusing to represent a client for political or professional motives
- Theft, misuse, or unauthorized "borrowing" of client funds
- Financial or other abuse of vulnerable or incapacitated clients
- Dishonesty in a fiduciary capacity, such as a guardian, trustee, or executor
- Lack of due diligence, such as missing the deadline to file a lawsuit
- Revealing confidential discussions with a client
- Hiding evidence or failing to disclose all relevant facts
- Sexual relationships between attorneys and client
- Improper termination of attorney-client relationship, including abandonment
How Can an Ethics Violation Affect Your Case?
An ethics violation can irreparably sabotage your personal injury case. Attorney misconduct or legal malpractice can cause you to receive a lesser settlement amount than you deserve, cause you to lose your case, or even prevent the case from making it to a court of law in the first place.
For example, when a personal injury lawyer fails to use the skill and care typically expected of a competent attorney, he or she could fail to prepare for trial, miss an important deadline, or fail to follow court orders. Likewise, an attorney can fail to act in your best interests and represent another client whose interests oppose yours. When your personal injury lawyer is not working diligently and honestly on your case, you could potentially lose out on the damages you're seeking.
What to Do If You Suspect Your Attorney of Wrongdoing
At the Weinstein Legal Team, our team has come across many clients who suffered through inadequate representation before they came to us for help. For some, suing their attorney for legal malpractice or attorney misconduct can be an effective way of getting compensation for their losses. Cases typically fall under three categories:
- Breach of contract
- Breach of fiduciary duty
To prove a legal malpractice case, a client must prove that the attorney in question owed them a duty for competent representation, the attorney breached that duty, and the breach caused the client to suffer financial loss. These cases can be difficult to argue, as you're battling an attorney where they're most comfortable - the courtroom. Instead, you may want to consider some alternatives before filing suit.
Options to Remove Yourself from an Unethical Case
Personal injury law can be complex, and it doesn't help matters that most clients are injured and trying their best to heal during the time of litigation. However, there are times when what your personal injury lawyer should tell you and what actually occurs are nowhere near the same thing. For example, a personal injury lawyer should inform you of any legal fees, their experience with your type of case, if they have the capacity to handle your case, and so on.
When you suspect your lawyer is acting unethically or is negligently mishandling your case, consider these options:
Switch Lawyers: If in the midst of your case you fear that your attorney is not acting ethically, it's almost never too late to switch lawyers. In fact, you can fire your lawyer the day before your trial if you'd like.
Report the Attorney to the State Disciplinary Board: At any time, if you feel as though your lawyer is not adhering to ethical standards, you can file a complaint with the Florida Bar. In some cases, the Bar may order the lawyer to compensate you for a clear financial loss, such as the attorney blatantly taking funds from your client account.
Request a Fee Arbitration: If you and your attorney are in disagreement about attorney fees, you may want to participate in a fee arbitration. During arbitration, a neutral third party called the arbitrator presides over the case, receives evidence from both parties, and makes a final decision about which fees are owed.
How to Research a Lawyer Before You Hire One
The best way to prevent working with an unethical lawyer? Do your own due diligence before signing any contracts. Before you hire a lawyer it is critical to conduct research. Begin by searching for attorneys with experience with your type of case, whether that's an auto accident, slip and fall, or so on.
Check out the attorney's website. Do they have any resources for you to learn more about their firm, staff, or practice areas? Are there attorney reviews on the site, or on other reputable resources?
A valuable tool to always consult before hiring an attorney is none other than the Florida Bar. The Florida Bar and its Department of Lawyer Regulation operate the Attorney Consumer Assistance Program, which administers a statewide disciplinary system. To search public record information regarding any Florida Bar attorney and if they have a clean track record, visit the Florida Bar website.
Lastly, schedule a free consultation with the attorney, or attorneys, you're considering working with. Bring along a set list of questions to ask your personal injury lawyer, such as their level of expertise in this practice area and their legal fees.
When your instincts tell you that your personal injury lawyer is not being truthful with you or handling your case to the best of their legal ability, listen. At the Weinstein Legal Team, our dedicated personal injury lawyers strive to ensure every one of our clients has the best possible chance at maximum compensation. Do not settle for unethical or negligent representation. If you've spotted one of these ten most common personal injury lawyer ethics violations, contact Weinstein Legal today.