If My Attorney is Being Unprofessional, Can I Sue?

Clients who experience poor service from an attorney, a person hired to be a justice advocate, often demand retribution for perceived betrayal. After all, your lawyer is meant to help you, not hurt you. Clients usually deal with four specific problem areas with a lawyer: communication, ethics, competence, and fee. Only some problems are so severe as to warrant a lawsuit against your own lawyer.

If My Attorney is Being Unprofessional, Can I Sue?

Before diving into the issues that could warrant a lawsuit, understanding the foundation of the lawyer-client relationship reveals the true nature of your lawyer’s lack of professionalism.

What to Expect from the Lawyer-Client Relationship

Having the right expectation for your interaction with your lawyer sets the tone. A lawyer isn’t going to be your best friend. For your attorney, the goal is to counsel you through the legal process, scoring a favorable outcome. Therefore, your lawyer (and team) should communicate well, demonstrate competence, subscribe to a standard of ethics, and stick to their fee plan.

Communicating Well

This is a tough one. While you might not hear from your lawyer for days after the initial work, this doesn’t mean that your lawyer isn’t doing a good job on your case. A number of factors go into getting a case through the legal system, and this requires a lot of background work.

Your lawyer should give you a quick timeline of how your legal situation should work, and he or she should make you aware of potential problems. It’s likely that you’ll hear more from your lawyer’s paralegal than from the lawyer. However, recognize the paralegal as an extension of your lawyer.

If you have a question for your lawyer and you call them, you should hear back promptly from either the lawyer or their paralegal.

Demonstrating Competence

Passing the bar exam is a giant hurdle for most lawyers, but it doesn’t guarantee real world competence. A lawyer learns the necessary skills along the way and improves upon their quality of excellence. When you suspect that your lawyer is not as competent as should be expected, complaining to the bar association about your lawyer probably won’t do anything.

Incompetence alone is not a worthy reason to file a lawsuit against a lawyer. The incompetence needs to be so extreme that it becomes a more severe problem, such as malpractice or attorney misconduct. However, if you spot incompetence early, check to be sure that it doesn’t turn into something much worse.

Subscribing to a Standard of Ethics

A series of ethical laws outline the way that lawyers should interact with the legal system and clients. In Pennsylvania, the PA Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania details a thorough list of guidelines for the lawyer-client relationship. If you believe that your lawyer has violated one of these ethical laws, you’ll want to check with this list.

The PA Disciplinary Board reserves the right to enforce the ethical laws and hand out discipline. Consequences of violating the ethical laws range from fines and license suspension to disbarment. However, lawyers are rarely disbarred unless they have a long record of bad behavior.

Sticking to the Fee Plan

Money causes problems. Clients complain that the bill is too high, not what was agreed upon, isn’t itemized, not appropriate based on the poor work. A fee agreement may seem unfair, but if it’s in writing, it’s your responsibility to pay.

A fee agreement should specify the billing system along with what to expect from your lawyer. Always get your payment plan in writing. At KM&A, we pair clients with legal service agreements, detailing the fee plan so there are no surprises.

Quick List: Lawyer-Client Relationship Expectations

Lawyer To-Do Client To-Do
Explain the upcoming legal process Write out summary and events
Outline the expected timeline Tell your lawyer the whole story
Highlight important details in your case Lawyer is bound by confidentiality
Share cost estimation Update lawyer on developments
Scrutinize possible strategies Respect time and schedule
Explain all delays and changes Provide required paperwork
Reveal how much the case is worth Inform your lawyer of unavailability
Weigh trial versus early settling Research and help as requested
Prepare for deposition and trial Pay according to the fee agreement

4 Reasons to Sue Your Lawyers

Attorney misconduct is a serious issue that clients should know how to recognize. By definition, attorney misconduct refers to bad behavior by an attorney that violated the professional code of conduct and triggers discipline. While most situations that a client might deem worthy for a lawsuit would receive only a shrug, four reasons can be cause for a lawsuit.

1. Your Lawyer Quits Working on your Case.

Sometimes a lawyer actually just stops working on your case. Although you reach out to the lawyer for information on what’s going on, you receive no response. You email your concerns and request a meeting but nothing. Due to the deadlines for filing for certain cases, you can’t wait for your lawyer to suddenly wake up and do work on your case.

If your lawyer is legitimately not moving your case forward, you need to explore other options.

2. Case Thrown Out of Court Because Lawyer Didn’t Work.

Sometimes, if you can prove that your case was thrown out of court due to your lawyer not doing their job, you can regain what was lost. You must prove that you would have won the original case if your first lawyer hadn’t mishandled the case. If you win your case against your first lawyer, they may become responsible to pay whatever money you would have won from the original case.

3. Settling your Case Without Your Permission.

A client must give approval before a lawyer can agree to a settlement. Therefore, if your lawyer agrees to a settlement without your permission, this is malpractice. Proving that you suffered malpractice and showing that your case was worth more in the settlement will require an excellent lawyer.

You will have to prove that the lawyer’s decision to settle without your permission actually caused you to lose a substantial amount of damages.

4. Misuse of Retainment Fee

Another area of malpractice is when a lawyer steals money from a client. An amount of money paid as a retainer should only be used for your case. Using the money for anything else but your case is illegal. If you strongly believe that your lawyer used your money for anything but your case, you should complain about the situation and seek aid from the Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security.


Although you can’t file a lawsuit against a lawyer simply for unprofessionalism, the lack of professionalism may be a clue to future issues. A lawyer-client relationship should be respected by both lawyer and client with both parties exercising responsibility. When you suspect your lawyer of malpractice, it’s best to receive a second opinion by another lawyer to check to see if you have a case.

Chat with an employment attorney: (412) 626-5626 or lawyer@lawkm.com.