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What to Do if Your Attorney Doesn't Comply with Professional Obligations

Lawyers have certain obligations to their clients. If a lawyer does not fulfill those obligations then a client might be able to seek recourse for the lawyer’s behavior. Therefore, it is important for clients to understand what their lawyers’ obligations are and what they can do if those obligations are not met.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has set forth Model Rules of Professional Responsibility. Since many states use the ABA’s model rules to fashion their own professional rules for attorneys, the information used in this article is based on the ABA’s model rules. It is important to check with your state’s attorney regulatory board (such as the Board of Bar Overseers) to determine the particular professional rules for attorneys in your state.

The Attorney’s Responsibility to a Client

An attorney has the responsibility to provide competent representation to each client. That means that the attorney must have the legal knowledge and skill to represent the client in a particular matter and be thorough in his or her legal preparation. The attorney’s fees must be reasonable as determined by the factors set forth in the Rules of Professional Responsibility.
An attorney must act with reasonable diligence and promptness when representing a client. To that end, the attorney must be careful not to have a conflict of interest in the matter or with clients. Further, the lawyer must consult with and reasonably inform the client of information related to the legal matter at hand.
An attorney also has the responsibility to abide by the client’s wishes and decisions about the case. For example, an attorney must abide by a client’s desire to agree to a civil settlement or plea bargain agreement.  Also, in most circumstances, the attorney must keep client information confidential.  

What is Reasonable?

Most of the Rules of Professional Conduct use a reasonableness standard in order to determine if an attorney’s conduct is appropriate. Since an attorney is a professional, the question would be one of reasonableness for other professional attorneys. So, would another attorney acting under the same circumstances and complying with all applicable rules of professional conduct and applying the requisite knowledge and skill to the matter have done the same thing?

How to Proceed with a Disciplinary Complaint

A client, who believes that an attorney violated his or her ethical obligations, can file a disciplinary complaint against the attorney with the state bar disciplinary committee. Typically, this involves a hearing on the client’s complaint. The board has the power to issue public or private reprimands and to temporarily or permanently revoke a person’s license to practice law in that jurisdiction.
Clients also have the right to pursue legal malpractice claims in court. If a client successfully proves that a lawyer was negligent or guilty of misconduct and that the client suffered monetary damages as a result then the client may recover those damages in a professional malpractice lawsuit.
In most jurisdictions, attorneys are required to take and pass a Professional Responsibility Exam prior to being admitted to the bar. Upon admittance to the bar, attorneys agree to comply with the ethical requirements of their jurisdiction. Most attorneys uphold that promise. However, as with every profession, some people do not uphold that promise and clients may seek recourse accordingly.

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