Cases are won and lost based on the quality of your legal team. Not all lawyers are equally skilled, competent or ethical. Knowing how to find a good lawyer, and how to avoid a bad one, is not always easy. Trust your instincts and watch for the red flags below. For more on locating and hiring a good lawyer, see How to Find a Lawyer and How to Choose a Lawyer.

Work Habits

An attorney’s work habits are one of the largest indicators of competence. The following red flags may indicate that it’s time to find new legal representation.

Unreturned phone calls – A lawyer who fails to return phone calls in a timely manner, or at all, does not place a premium on client service. They may be too busy with other cases, uncertain with how to proceed with your case or ignoring your matter altogether. What ever the reason, recognize that it is a problem for YOU.

Unanswered e-mails – Like unanswered phone calls, unanswered e-mails can indicate that the lawyer is too busy, stressed or overwhelmed to handle your case or is not making your matter a priority.

Missed deadlines – Missing deadlines, especially court filing deadlines, can seriously damage your case. If a lawyer consistently misses deadlines, it is best to terminate the relationship and move on.

Poor attitude – A lawyer who displays a condescending, uncommunicative, rude, impatient or otherwise poor attitude may be difficult to work with. A poor attorney-client relationship may create conflict, tension and ill-will. Always remember YOU are the client.

Lack of proper calendaring system – A reliable, organized calendaring system is critical to meeting deadlines and prioritizing multiple obligations. A lack of a proper calendaring system can lead to missed deadlines and other problems that will affect your legal matters.

Promise of a court victory or successful outcome – An attorney should never promise his client a specific outcome, no matter how likely that outcome may be. Be wary of promises of a sure-fire victory.

Refusal to provide references – A refusal to provide references or let you talk with past clients indicates that the lawyer had problems with past clients that he does not want you to know about.

Work Premises

A lawyer’s work premises, from the building location and exterior to the reception room, conference room and offices, can speak volumes about a lawyer’s work practices and clientele. Below are a few signs that all is not well.

Office space in state of disrepair – Office space or property in poor disrepair can signal financial problems on the part of the lawyer.

Large number of empty offices – A high number of empty offices can signal significant employee turnover, too-rapid growth or financial problems.

Unkempt, disorderly office – A messy, cluttered office is a red flag for disorganization and inefficiency. Perhaps the lawyer thrives in chaos but do you want to risk losing important paperwork or missing a deadline?

Stacks of unfilled papers or unopened mail – A backlog of filing or unopened mail may indicate that the lawyer lacks proper support staff or is disorganized, unmotivated or overwhelmed.

Lawyer’s Staff

A look at the lawyer’s staff members and how he interacts with personnel can provide clues to his effectiveness, competence, reliability and ethics.

Unhappy staff members – Disgruntled employees or low workplace morale can signal poor lawyer-staff communication, strained relationships and a lack of caring. A lawyer who treats staff poorly – through bullying, verbal abuse, rudeness and other behavior – can fuel conflict, tension and ill-will. If the lawyer fails to treat his employees well, will he treat clients well?

High turnover rate – High employee attrition can signal dissatisfaction with the law firm in general or the lawyer specifically. Committed, satisfied employees are more likely to remain with a firm, regardless of pay or benefits.

Lack of staff – A lawyer who lacks adequate support staff may be difficult to work with or may be experiencing financial difficulties.

Billing Practices

A lawyer’s billing practices can also raise red flags. Below are a few billing practices to watch.

Over billing or excessive billing – Over billing is a sign that a lawyer or paralegal is inflating the time it took to perform a task (known as “padding time”).

Vague billing – Your legal bill should explain in detail the tasks performed, who is performing them and when. For example, a phone call should include information as to who made the call, what party they were calling, the nature of the matter and the duration of the call.

Surcharge on legal expenses – Some law firms add a surcharge to routine expenses such as copying or postage fees as a way to boost profit levels. In most cases, such charges are inappropriate and unethical.

Hidden expenses – Watch for hidden expenses that were not disclosed at the outset or in the fee agreement or retention agreement.

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