Column: Red flags to look for when choosing a lawyer


Local attorney Teresa J. Rhyne

By Teresa J. Rhyne

–Several years ago, my dog ​​was diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis was not good. Every week I took him to a veterinary oncology clinic for treatment. The oncologist was cold, indifferent and uncommunicative. Worse still, she never offered hope, leaving me to wonder why my dog ​​and I were there. Finally, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I complained to the doctor who owned the clinic.

She said, “That’s why we have several doctors here. Not every doctor is right for every person or pet. And just like that, I had a new veterinary oncologist assigned to us. She was warm, caring and eternally optimistic.

I always remembered both the importance of having hope and the lesson that not every professional is right for everyone. The same is true for lawyers. How do you know if a lawyer is the right one for you?


The California State Bar opened nearly 17,500 attorney misconduct cases in 2020 and filed notices of disciplinary charges against 180 attorneys in state bar court.

In 2020, 79 California lawyers were disbarred and 114 others were suspended. (I suspect that the number of unhappy customers is much higher than these statistics would represent.)

Always check the California State Bar website to see if the attorney you are considering has been disciplined. Also, make sure the attorney is licensed to practice law.

A client once brought his trust to me to consider if it needed updating. The trust was so poorly drafted that I tracked down the “attorney” who drafted it, only to find that he had been disbarred ten years before drafting the client trust. The lawyer still maintained a website that mentioned “legal services” and prominently displayed “JD” behind his name. JD simply means the law school graduate. It doesn’t mean they’ve passed the bar or are admitted to practice in the state of California, which requires more than just a law degree.

Getting a recommendation for a lawyer is a good place to start, but be sure to ask the person making the recommendation if they liked the lawyer, had a good experience, and felt well-treated. You don’t just want a name.


How long has the lawyer you are considering practicing? How long have they been practicing in the area where you need services? Are they specialized in this area?

Gone are the days when the neighborhood lawyer could handle your speeding ticket, divorce, estate planning, and property line dispute with your neighbor. Most lawyers now, out of necessity, only practice in a few related areas of law. It’s hard enough to keep up with two or three areas of law, given the complexity of each in modern times. A lawyer offering services in several unrelated areas of law probably barely scratches the surface of each.

Likewise, someone who immediately opens their own law firm after graduating from law school is probably not a good fit. A law school graduate has no idea about the practice of law – he may know the law and know the theory well, but experience is always the best teacher.

A new lawyer can be enthusiastic and charge less, and that can be great for you, as long as they’re supervised by a more experienced lawyer who knows where things go wrong, can offer practical solutions, and understands best practices in an area. particular. .


Lack of reasonable communication is one of the most common complaints filed with the California State Bar against attorneys. Once you have hired a lawyer, it is reasonable to expect that your questions will be answered and you will be kept informed of the issues.

If your lawyer can’t explain things to you in a way you can understand, or worse, if they don’t bother to explain things, that lawyer is not for you. Likewise, if the attorney doesn’t respond to calls or emails in a timely manner, doesn’t keep you up to date with your cases, or is annoyed with your questions or concerns, it may not be the case. lawyer you need.

You have the choice

Just like I could choose another oncologist for my dog, you can choose another lawyer. You can fire your lawyer. You can interview several lawyers before hiring one. I’m amazed at how few clients interview lawyers before hiring one, although many lawyers do free initial consultations (especially in my area of ​​estate planning).

There are more than 190,000 active attorneys in good standing with the California State Bar; be sure to choose one that is well equipped to handle your business and that you are comfortable with. It is an important and often lasting relationship.

Oh, and my dog ​​lived another nine years. There was hope after all.

Teresa J. Rhyne is an attorney who practices estate planning and trust administration in Riverside and Paso Robles, California. She is also the New York Times number one bestselling author for “The Dog Lived (and So Will I)” and “Poppy in The Wild.” You can reach her at [email protected]


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