Legal Ethics

These common mistakes can lead to lawyer ethics complaints

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Oddball ethics complaints may get more attention, but it’s the run-of-the-mill problems that are most likely to trip up lawyers, according to lawyers who handle such cases.

BNA’s U.S. Law Week spoke with several experts about common errors. Here are five of them:

1) Failing to communicate effectively with clients. Often clients mistake lack of news about their cases for lawyer neglect. A failure to return phone calls can make matters worse. Lawyers should write clients to keep them informed about the progress of their cases. And they need to stay in contact even when a “squeaky wheel” client becomes an annoyance.

Other communications problems include failure to put fee agreements in writing and failure to send termination letters at the end of representation.

2) Trust account problems. One common problem arises when a lawyer puts a settlement check in a trust account and writes a check to the client before the money clears. The check bounces, triggering an automatic report to discipline officials in some states. And lawyers can wind up in trouble if they fail to put client money in trust accounts or put their own money into the accounts.

3) Failing to disclose fee-sharing arrangements when lawyers from different firms are working on a case. Lawyers should disclose how each lawyer is involved and get the client’s approval.

4) Investing with former clients. Lawyers should follow the same safeguards for investing with current clients—getting consent and advising the former client to get independent legal advice.

5) Improper notarizing. Lawyers can run into trouble when they sign a client’s name or notarize a client’s signature without the client’s presence.

See also:

ABA Journal (2007): “Top 10 Ethics Traps”

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