Rights and Wrongs Spelled Out for Lawyers

Lawyers have ethics, contrary to what some of the cynical readers of this column have suggested. In fact, lawyers in this state are regulated by state law, something called the California Rules of Professional Conduct.

I mentioned these ethical rules in my column last week about a new code of professional courtesy meant to help transform lawyers into a well-mannered, polite and respectful group. And several readers wanted to know more about these ethical prohibitions--in part, to determine if their own lawyers are playing the game by the rules.

The California Young Lawyers Assn. has helped provide this information in a new pamphlet, “Ethics Alert--Common Dilemmas Faced by Lawyers.” Although the pamphlet is intended to help lawyers understand their professional obligations, it is also useful for clients trying to understand the rules. So I’ve summarized the major points and added my own commentary, from the client’s perspective:

--May your lawyer keep your legal file? No. It’s your file, and you have a right to get it back, even if you haven’t paid your bill. Sometimes a lawyer who has been discharged from a case will use the file as ransom to make sure the bill is paid, but it is unethical to refuse to return your file. If necessary, ask for it in writing, and if you aren’t satisfied, report the lawyer to the State Bar.


--May your lawyer charge interest on past due bills? Yes, but only if you consent to it in advance, and then the interest rate can’t change unless you expected--or were told earlier--about possible rate fluctuations.

--Will your lawyer quit your case if you don’t pay your bills? A lawyer is permitted to withdraw from employment if you “deliberately disregard” your payment obligations. But even then, the attorney must take reasonable steps to avoid

prejudice to your case. And being a few weeks behind in paying the bills is not the kind of “disregard” required.

--Is your lawyer allowed to pay another lawyer a referral fee? Yes, but only if you consent in writing to the division of fees, and the total fee charged is not increased solely because of the referral fee. So if your lawyer normally charges a 35% contingency fee, he can’t charge you 45% in order to pass along 10% to the lawyer who referred you.


--Will your lawyer ever “fire” you as a client? If, out of spite, you instruct your attorney to take action solely to harass or maliciously injure someone, or pursue an appeal merely to delay resolution of the case, or for any reason not in good faith, your lawyer is required by the ethical rules to withdraw from representing you.

--When is your lawyer permitted to stop working for you? Your lawyer may withdraw from employment if you insist upon presenting an unsupportable claim, want to pursue an illegal or unethical course of conduct, make it unbearable for him to represent you or refuse to follow his advice in a non-court matter. The lawyer can also quit if his or her physical or mental condition makes it difficult to continue or if you consent to the withdrawal. In addition, in court matters, a lawyer may ask to be released by the judge, based on a showing of good cause.

--Will your lawyer let you bend the truth a little? A lawyer is prohibited from helping a client put on false evidence. The pamphlet advises lawyers to “initially try to dissuade the client from putting on the false evidence,” but if unable to do so, the attorney must withdraw.

--What can you do if your lawyer’s bill is too high? (There is a free State Bar pamphlet with that very name. For a copy, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102.) In most cases, a lawyer is required to arbitrate any dispute about fees, without going to court, if that’s what you want. In fact, before a lawyer may pursue a lawsuit against you for unpaid bills, he must inform you of the right to seek arbitration. Many local bar associations have arbitration panels.

--Can you trust your lawyer to keep a secret? Lawyers are required to maintain the confidential communications of their clients. Indeed, they are privileged to refuse to testify about them even if called as witnesses in court.

If you think your lawyer is not fulfilling his ethical obligations, as a first step you might want to tell him to read the “Ethics Alert” pamphlet. But if it’s a serious problem, write the State Bar Office of Trial Counsel Intake Unit, 333 S. Beaudry Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 90017, or call toll-free (800) 843-9053.

Klein cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal VIEW, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.