Samuel C. Stretton. Samuel C. Stretton.

In this modern era, the high number of client complaints makes practicing the law difficult and unpleasant.

As a lawyer, I am getting very frustrated; clients seem to make complaints to the Disciplinary Board routinely even though there’s nothing wrong. It makes the practice of law so unpleasant. 

There is no question in recent years clients have been complaining more about their attorneys. The number of complaints is because of the easy access to information about the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and Disciplinary Board. Also, we just live in a generation of selfishness, where everyone thinks their needs are everything, and if people don’t drop everything to deal with our needs, then they should make a complaint about it.

Surprisingly, those folks who lawyers help the most, i.e., people without fees or when one is doing work on a pro bono or quasi-pro bono basis are sometimes the most willing to complain. It never ceases to amaze me how a client will complain about a lawyer even though that very lawyer didn’t charge the client. If one is going to do a case pro bono, then do it pro bono. Otherwise, charge the full fee. If one charges a very reduced fee, that creates the worst of all worlds. The clients don’t appreciate it or really understand it and, therefore, the lawyer’s quasi-pro bono efforts get no credit. It’s a recipe to create more complaints.

Criminal defendants often complain. Many of the jails have the disciplinary complaints in the law libraries. But the problem is just as many clients are so demanding and unreasonable.  Through modern communication, if there is no a response within milliseconds, people get upset. Heaven help the lawyer if the lawyer doesn’t respond until a few days later. That surely gets some people angry enough they’ll go to the Disciplinary Board.

To give the complaining client the benefit of the doubt, some don’t seem to realize the extent of what the Disciplinary Board does. This is not just general complaining, this could take someone’s livelihood away. It also involves a lot of time and effort to resolve issues.

There is no easy answer to this. Judges are facing the same problem. Everyone and their grandmother makes a complaint about a judge if they don’t win. The Judicial Conduct Board has had to hire additional counsel and they are overwhelmed with complaints against judges. Most of these complaints are dismissed. Most of the attorney disciplinary complaints are dismissed. But the volume is high and it does create problems.

Although the advice traditionally given is be diligent, respond, etc. That doesn’t always work in this modern world. Unless the lawyer is at his desk constantly and can respond, it’s impossible to respond in the milliseconds most people want. Also, the massive over-communication makes the practice of law just miserable. One never has a chance to deal with real issues. One always has to deal with overwhelming communication, if not by letter then through email and every other means available.

Perhaps the real problem is that people expect perfection in everything. They expect lawyers to have every answer. They assume every lawyer is rich. They have no concept of the overhead and cost of running a practice.

The domestic bar is at a severe disadvantage. Their clients think the world centers totally around them and their problems. Heaven help a domestic lawyer if they should delay a few minutes in responding to their complaints about the argument they had with their former husband this morning or issues of child custody, etc.

On the other hand, there is a need to encourage people to make legitimate complaints. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel doesn’t have the money, like a District Attorney’s Office does, to go out and seek out misconduct. In essence, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel relies on complaints being made or information brought to their attention. For the independence of the legal profession, it is important that valid complaints are made and then timely acted on. Problems arise in the number of invalid or sometimes absolutely false complaints.

One of the most frustrating issues for a lawyer is a totally false complaint to the Disciplinary Board and the lawyer can’t bring a suit. But every complainant has absolute immunity when they file a complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel. That immunity is necessary to allow people to make complaints. Otherwise, valid complaints might not ever be raised. But it’s very frustrating to the lawyer when the complaint is malicious and falsely made. The lawyer has no remedy to sue the person. The exception, of course, is if the person publicizes a complaint. If one publicizes a complaint under the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board Rules, then the immunity from the suit is lost.

But the endless and harassing complaints don’t have any real answer. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel does their best to weed those out. Many times, complaints are dismissed and the respondent attorney doesn’t know of the complaint.

Going hand-in-hand with the increased number of false or inaccurate disciplinary complaints is the new trend to go on the internet to post bad reviews about lawyers even if, at times, they are not warranted. I have seen clients just make up things for bad reviews. Further, employees of law firms when they leave oftentimes will write horrible letters about their employers. It is not an uncommon occurrence now where a client will threaten a lawyer with writing bad reviews, even to the extent of demanding a fee reduction or else the bad review will be forthcoming.

Of course, clients can be sued, but most people don’t have money or insurance to pay a judgment.

It isn’t easy to be a professional anymore. That’s the way the world is. Perhaps someday again there will be some respect given for professionalism and knowledge and perhaps someday clients will once again come to value and respect the professionalism of their lawyer. But until that day comes, the life of a lawyer is not easy and practicing law is not as much fun as it used to be.

It’s not a good idea to date a former client.

I am a lawyer and a former client and I have become friends and now we’re starting to date and presumably might have an intimate relationship. Is there anything that prohibits that?

As every lawyer should know, sexual relations or sexual contact with a client is prohibited unless the lawyer was dating the client before the representation. Even then, it’s probably not a wise decision to make.

Rule 1.8(j) clearly prohibits a sexual relationship with a client.

“A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a client unless a consensual relationship existed between them when the client-lawyer relationship commenced.”

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has been much tougher on these kinds of cases. Sexual involvement with a client which used to result sometimes in minor discipline can now potentially result in disbarment or a substantial suspension, particularly if there are issues or questions about the quality of representation or fees.

The question of having sexual relations with a former client, does not appear to be covered directly by the aforementioned rule. But it could be covered by conflict of interest rules. For instance, there is Conflict of Interest Rule 1.7 or conflict of interest rule involving a former client, Rule 1.9.  Anytime a lawyer’s personal relationship somehow hurts the client, i.e., current or former client that potentially could be a major issue.

If a lawyer is going to really develop an intimate or sexual relationship with a former client, they lawyer should be very careful. There may be a question of whether the representation has ended. If the relationship breaks up, the client may say, “I always believed I was still his or her client,” even though the original case no longer is active. The best thing for the lawyer to do would be to send any former client the lawyer might have an interest in, in terms of dating or sexual relationship after the attorney-client relationship is over, a letter which clearly states that the attorney-client relationship is over and the lawyer no longer represents them. That would hopefully prevent a situation where the lawyer is dating a former client and it doesn’t go well and then the former client, in a vindictive moment, complains about the lawyer having sex with him or her, raising the issue that they thought they were still an active client.

If there is a clear break in the attorney-client relationship and the lawyer starts dating the former client and then the former client has a new case then, it appears the lawyer could represent the client because they now have a dating relationship prior to the new case.

The whole matter can become very unseemly. Perhaps it’s one thing if a former client and lawyer have true love and get married. But, short of that, it’s a very risky and treacherous area to start dating former clients because of the issue of conflict of interest and there are concerns that a subsequently spurned former client might raise issues that could impact on the lawyer’s reputation and result in a disciplinary complaint.

Chester County lawyer Samuel C. Stretton has practiced in the area of legal and judicial ethics for more than 35 years. He welcomes questions and comments from readers. If you have a question, call Stretton directly at 610-696-4243 or write to him at 301 S. High St. P.O. Box 3231, West Chester, Pennsylvania, 19381.