Question: I recently hired an attorney. I have found out that he is good friends with my ex-wife’s attorney. I would have thought that this wouldn’t matter to a professional, but he did nothing to further my case. After terminating his services, he made several excuses about returning my original documents. He is in possession of all original documents pertaining to my case prior to hiring him. Is there some way that I can ensure that all my documents are returned to me intact and quickly? Are there general rules that apply regarding conflict of interest of the type that began my problems with this attorney?
Answer: One type of conflict of interest for an attorney occurs when the attorney has a significant personal interest involving the opposing party, or, in certain situations, the opposing attorney. A casual social relationship between attorneys is not going to raise a formal conflict of interest. A business, financial, or familial/romantic relationship between attorneys is more likely to raise a conflict of interest. Even without a formal conflict of interest, one possible issue between “friendly” opposing counsels is an increased willingness on the part of the attorneys to accept positions or information from the other as accurate or, conversely, a diminished interest in confronting opposing counsel on issues.
Your comments, though, appear to reflect more of a problem with how an attorney prioritizes client matters, not related to any friendship with opposing counsel. The most common complaints against attorneys are the failure to aggressively pursue a matter and the failure to regularly communicate with clients. Regardless of why your former counsel failed to meet your expectations, the failure to communicate with you as to the status (or lack of progress) in your case is a major concern. The type of client matter dictates how frequently a lawyer may communicate with a client. An injury case may only require monthly or even less frequent updates as to the progress of a case as medical examinations and witness interviews are compiled. However, family law matters usually involve day-to-day issues for the client which may warrant frequent communication. Weekly or bi-weekly communication is often appropriate in family law cases, if not daily contact when custody or critical financial issues are involved. An attorney who primarily practices in other areas of the law may not consider that the family law client requires more communication than other types of clients.
The specific requirements on returning documents to clients varies by state, but in general an attorney must return promptly to the client or provide to the successor attorney those original documents and property of the client needed to keep the case progressing through the court. Your new attorney should be able to remind your former attorney of the applicable standards in your state.
Richard Coffee is a Litigation Manager in the Belleville Illinois office of Cordell & Cordell. He is an experienced divorce attorney whose practice is devoted to domestic litigation. He is licensed in the State of Illinois and is admitted to practice law in the U.S. District Courts for Northern, Central and Southern Illinois.
Mr. Coffee has extensive domestic litigation trial experience representing clients in courts throughout Illinois on all aspects of domestic litigation, including the representation of clients who are current or retired military personnel with issues under the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act and the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act, clients involved in state court jurisdictional disputes due to the relocation of one or both parties from or to Illinois, and clients with government or private pension benefit valuation and division issues.