Even the best attorney-client relationship can go awry. Every state has a mechanism to file a complaint against an attorney — typically through the state agency that regulates attorneys, or your state’s highest court, or the state bar association.
But the American Bar Association, which offers tips on its website on how to deal with attorney-client disputes, cautions that it is best to first try working out the issue directly with your lawyer.
“Be aware that making a complaint of this sort may punish the lawyer for misconduct, but it will probably not help you recover any money,” the site says.
In the case of fee disputes, most state bar associations offer arbitration programs. And when it comes to receiving your proceeds from a legal settlement, there are multiple layers of protection designed to put the client in control.
“Only clients can agree on a settlement,” Shely said. “So, if a lawyer says, ‘Hey, I settled your case,’ a big red flag should be going up because lawyers can’t do that. The client decides settlement, period.”
Your attorney must notify you as soon as a settlement check is received, and then must deposit it into a special account from which your lawyer will pay you your proceeds and withdraw his fee. But if there is any disagreement about the lawyer’s share, that amount in dispute must remain in the account until the dispute is resolved.
If the attorney is found to have stolen settlement funds, as Avenatti is accused of doing, there are built-in protections to help you get at least some of that money back.
“Every state has a fund of money, a client protection fund,” Shely said, “which is literally a fund of money that is there to compensate clients who have had their lawyers steal funds from them.”
The best way to prevent disputes from going that far is to keep the lines of communication open. Understand that you are not your lawyer’s only client, but do not be afraid to ask questions.
“Unfortunately, sometimes even corporate clients are afraid to ask a lawyer, ‘What the heck were you doing?’ But the clients always entitled to ask that,” Shely said.
See how star lawyer Michael Avenatti went from a national sensation to a convicted felon on the ALL NEW SEASON PREMIERE of “American Greed,” Monday, January 18 at 10pm ET/PT only on CNBC.