Divorce lawyers: What to do when your client files a grievance

Clients dearly love to file grievances against lawyers. Sometimes there are legitimate gripes. But sometimes, this is about the money. Usually, the first thing a client does to try to get out of paying a lawyer is file a grievance to say that lawyer committed malpractice, or did something so egregious, that the lawyer basically shouldn’t even be allowed to continue to have a law license.

Lawyers: What to do when the client files a grievance?

When you are called up by the grievance committee, you better have good counsel first of all. And hopefully you also have malpractice insurance. Because while a grievance complaint is not necessarily a malpractice complaint, rest assured that where there is one, there’s bound to be the other not far behind.

Hopefully, you have been keeping good records of correspondences between you and the client (email, slow mail, text messages, logs, etc) so that you can show that you have been communicating with the client and can refute any attempt by the client to say that you haven’t. You also have a letter of engagement, or retainer to show the terms of your agreement between you and the client.

Cooperate with the grievance committee. If they want your files, make sure to provide them with whatever they want. And hopefully you have kept a comprehensive file on the case and can provide whatever paperwork the committee needs.

Don’t lie to the committee. Whatever the truth is, fess up (with advice of counsel, of course) and try not to say anything that is going to be contradictory down the road.

Remember that in this arena, you have to prove yourself innocent. They may tell you otherwise, but you are guilty until you prove yourself innocent.

If you have done anything with money that is irregular – money that belongs to the client, I mean – kiss your dog goodbye. With very few exceptions, attorneys don’t come out unscathed from mishandling an escrow account, or money entrusted to them, as a fiduciary, on behalf of a client. Cut off your nose before you mess with your client’s money. Throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge first. DO NOT MESS WITH CLIENTS’ MONEY. You can’t win that battle, my darlings.

You are probably going to have a hearing in which you will be interrogated. Practice your responses and prepare the way you would for any trial (I haven’t had the experience but this is just my hunch of what happens and what you should be prepared for.)

They may call other lawyers to testify against you. Say, for example, you mishandled a divorce case. They will likely subpoena opposing counsel to testify against you. Or they will ask opposing counsel to provide certain records or documents. I had a situation like this. I was the opposing counsel and even then I was shitting in my boots. I didn’t have to testify but they wanted my letters and stuff that I had written to this attorney who was definitely a strange bird and was up to some inappropriate shenanigans. But I was very clear that I was uncomfortable testifying against another lawyer. Plus, I wanted nothing to do with the situation. I didn’t want to go near it with a ten foot pole. To be honest, I don’t know what happened in the case. They never followed up to have me testify. But they called me to the grievance office and had me bring in my file on the case to show how I tried to contact this lawyer who was accused of “neglecting” a case and practicing with a suspended license. Which, to be honest, was pretty bold of this person. And it was true about the neglect because I had tried exhaustively to contact this individual and all my correspondences showed that. 

At the same time, what were my rights? Did I have to show them my records since I was just opposing counsel? I don’t know. I felt imposed upon. I wondered if I needed my own lawyer. But I complied and showed them the correspondences because what am I going to do? Have a fight with the grievance committee? Make a big deal about something that can be over just by letting them simply review the file? It was easier to make it go away by showing them the file. But I definitely felt icky.

It felt dirty and gross, being even tangentially involved in something like that, being called in to give testimony in a situation like that, and then being conflicted about it because it’s another lawyer, you know? And while what the lawyer was being accused of was not nice, still, I only had one side of the story and I didn’t want to be even remotely involved in another lawyer being suspended or disbarred.

So, what’s the point of that? Well, try not to get into that situation. Do the right thing by your clients. And if, with all your best efforts, you still get “grieved” make sure to have good counsel, and make sure you have good records. And remember that the truth ultimately will prevail. So if you are truthful and honest, go in there and defend yourself. Do not be intimidated by either the accuser, or the process.

And make sure you have good malpractice insurance. Because grieved clients tend to also file malpractice lawsuits.

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